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How we talk about drugs and why it matters

An interview with criminologist Liviu Alexandrescu
Zur deutschen Übersetzung

#mybrainmychoice: Why is the analysis of media coverage on drug users a relevant research topic?

Liviu Alexandrescu: As we can see well and beyond the scope of drug policy, how public discourse frames various events and conditions unfolding in the news cycle has consequences in terms of how the social issues framing them are eventually dealt with. This obviously matters for all manner of political and philosophical reasons relating to any democratic society’s responsibility to look after its most vulnerable. But even more so when it comes down to groups such as those deemed to be ‘problematic substance users’, who tend to be exposed to other vulnerabilities and forms of marginalization pertaining to low socio-​economic status, racist policing and so on.

These have been groups historically stigmatized and subjected to various forms of symbolic* and physical violence under the guise of the ‘war on drugs’ and prohibitionist drug laws, by governments, law enforcement and civil populations, often in complicity. Criminological research should aim to understand, as well as counteract the cultural mechanisms and persisting stigma that oftentimes legitimise the abuse they face.

In mainstream media, drug users are generally presented as homeless, sick, worthless people who allegedly harm the society. There are those horrifying stories about ‘death drugs’ like in the case of drugs that would turn people into ‘spice zombies’ that you deconstruct in your article. (To what extent) are these portrayals realistic?

Depends on what we understand ‘realistic’ to be. There is certainly exaggeration in terms of how various waves of sensationalist media reporting around old and new drugs under the public lens (from LSD and cannabis, to MDMA and new psychoactive substances – NPS) have often inflated the harms associated with their use and the youth (sub)cultures taking shape around them. As in some cases there also are observable personal and social harms resulting from drug use. Sometimes it’s hard to separate these and measure them accurately against the media backdrop, as there might even be different interpretations of what constitutes harm. But the overall picture is much more complicated than that, in my opinion.

If you walked around the streets and town centres of Britain in recent years, you could indeed see plenty of destitute people collapsed in doorways or stumbling around aimlessly, under the numbing influence of strong synthetic cannabinoids (‘spice’). It’s most certainly not a pleasant sight for the public at large and community worries are clearly justified. But can we disentangle this from the systemic cruelty of austerity politics and government policies that have slashed housing, unemployment and other welfare benefits keeping economically frail segments of society afloat and that have seen rough sleeping numbers more than double over the past decade, since austerity was imposed in the aftermath of the previous economic depression?

The question here is whether demeaning tropes such as ‘spice zombies’ – that somehow suggest these people are thoughtless and emotionally void entities that have lost their humanity due to a habit they inflicted upon themselves – deflect attention from the larger social and material conditions that have contributed to them being in that state and from our collective responsibility to do something about it. My argument is that such negative language that denies their personhood and depicts them as self-​damaging ‘others’**, all the more when carried by popular media, can also turn them into easy targets for public anger, eventually obscuring those more critical conversations we need to have to challenge the very toxic effects of deep inequalities and structural deprivation that drugs so frequently come to compound. 

According to your article, journalists play a crucial role in promoting the perception of differences between „deserving subjects of the civilised society and the abject welfare-​dependent classes”. Can you elaborate the political mindset driving this and how it has influenced the general perception of drug use and drug users? Why are reports about drug use mostly connected to crime and failure?

Journalists, and I know this from my own experience working for a few good years in the media, often frame their outputs in ways that serve the commercial logic of the news organisations that have them on their payroll. A good story is one that gets people’s attention and that is simple to make sense of. The ‘war on drugs’ narrative itself has been a quite commercially successful story itself for over a century now because of its sheer simplicity i.e. psychoactive drugs are inherently criminal and destructive, police them harshly and all the problems they bring will go away. That was never the case and the war was never won, but it did pin down a kind of over-​simplistic narrative that low tolerance for forms of intoxication with substances that society deems illicit (more so when visible in plain sight) should be responded with disciplinary action and appropriate punishment.

Counter to that, however, in recent times many drugs have become normalised among youth and club cultures in the West and beyond – in terms of use, availability, cultural acceptance and even legal reforms, to some extent. But dependency itself has come to encompass many other troubling conditions in the public imagination, independent of the drugs field. One of that is dependency on state or community aid and there is long historical thread here in conservative political thinking that lack of personal freedom, autonomy and entrepreneurship are character flaws only made worse by welfare handouts and generosity. That if you allow too much ‘undeserved’ help to the destitute, you further encourage them to persist in laziness and misery. This is where that moral distinction between ‘civilised and abject’ also best operates symbolically and creates a sort of twofold stigma – where substance dependency sits on top of extreme poverty as a sign of moral feebleness and underclass abjection. A person or visible group who is both poor and addicted to drugs must be morally weak and dependent in relation to both the substance fixated on and to the charity of others. This is also a simple story that obscures the complexities of human lives and blinds us to the suffering of those we thus collectively deem to be lost beyond redemption.

While it is often argued that homeless people who use drugs would be costly for society, you point out the „social costs“ instead. What does that mean?

This goes back to that symbolic, class-​informed distinction between who the people using drugs that we consider worthy of compassion are. Drugs that are particularly appealing to young people from middle class backgrounds (MDMA, mephedrone etc.) will trigger different anxieties to those associated with people of lower condition (heroin, crack etc.). Drug scares featuring the former are usually framed in terms of notions of risk and innocence – naïve but morally valuable youths threatening or potentially disrupting their future by taking bad drugs, who need to be protected by society (and law enforcement). When we get to the latter type of drug scares, those more focused around disadvantaged users from marginal social strata, it tends to become about the people using drugs more as a source of criminality and contagion, that needs to be contained. They appear as more disposable, more so in times of crisis and scarcity.

This is what we’ve seen with the depictions of homeless people on synthetic cannabinoids that began populating the media imaginary in recent years, as yet another source of anxiety within urban spaces. And implicitly with the undertone of such reporting that something should be done about it, that public space should be cleansed and sanitised of their presence. But the social costs I refer to are precisely those that make them visible and those witnessing them uncomfortable. This is to say, those costs incurred by the whole of society but primarily by the most economically vulnerable that result from political-​ideological choices such as state-​imposed budgetary tightening and social welfare cuts. For example, Britain now hosts seven out of ten poorest regions in northwest Europe and sees about 4.1 million children living in poverty, 500,000 more than half a decade back, a period that has also seen an almost doubling of foodbank usage and that has prompted the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty to label austerity measures in the country a ‘social calamity’. In that sense, discomforting as it might be, the presence of so-​called ‘spice zombies’ lingering around town centres is just one visible reminder of these larger tectonic social changes and the misery they engender unfolding in the background. 

What is the responsibility of drug policy and its possibilities to improve the situation? How could drug policy contribute to decrease stigmatisation?

These are certainly problems that extend outside the single terrain of drug policy. Of course, drug policy has an impact – in the UK, new psychoactive substances (NPS) such as synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs, or ‘synthetic cannabinoids’/’spice’ for short) have been pushed onto street markets by the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, the most recent piece of prohibitionist, ‘blanket ban’ legislation that criminalised all NPS and closed down the head shops previously selling them. This effectively passed them on to less scrupulous dealers who would eventually target homeless populations or lace them with other drugs, amplifying their risk and harm potential. This was acknowledged by the UK government itself in a later assessment of this piece of legislation. Global experience clearly shows that prohibition often has the undesired effects of encouraging new market cycles where one wave of banned substances is replaced with yet another more potent, yet unknown and potentially more dangerous line. So maybe thinking differently about how we control the supply side to reduce risks and harms would be a useful starting point.

However, the problem is much wider and pertains to social policy, more generally. ‘Spice’-type drugs have also slipped into (often overpopulated, understaffed and underfunded) British prisons, where self-​harm, suicide and violence have also been on the increase. There is also a cultural problem around the stigma they generate. We’ve seen websites and social media pages being set up to collect and display humiliating images and footage of homeless persons intoxicated with ‘spice’, where online visitors often leave hateful comments or outrightly incite to violence against them. This happened to the extent that one English local council in Sheffield had to put forward its own social media campaign to counter the trend and ask people not to film or take photos of people in public experiencing the disabling effects of synthetic cannabinoids. What all this means is that we need to maybe look beyond drugs and intoxication per se to ask those bigger questions that revolve around how we can build fairer, more compassionate societies that look after the least fortunate. 

Which lessons should journalists learn regarding the coverage on drug use and drug users?

There is increasingly more consistent reporting that references the wider perspective and some media outlets will obviously have different codes and practices that deliver this more robustly than others. There have also been multiple calls from activists and drug policy reform supporters to begin to change the language we use around drugs and addiction, as well as provide more nuanced and contextualised reporting of these issues. One of the most recent contributions to this debate came from the Global Commission on Drug Policy (endorsed by global political, media, business personalities etc.), suggesting that more empathetic vocabulary such as ‘person who uses drugs’ instead of ‘drug user’, or ‘person with drug dependence’ instead of ‘addict’ or ‘junkie’ can move the conversation away from old stereotypes, more so if coupled with an increasing focus on prevention and education. Providing balance and counterarguments, as well as including the voices of people who use drugs themselves feature among reporting guidelines recommended by other organisations such as AOD Media Watch or the UK Drug Policy Commission. But again, I’m not sure that changing the semantics matters much without a concrete change in social policy and in the material circumstances of the people who are most exposed to the harms that can result from substance use.

You close the article with an appeal for critical research to expose stigmatising policies and to challenge popular myths. Would you please recommend some of your favourite topics to students and researchers, who are reading this interview?

Sure, see a couple of recommendations of book titles that I found particularly insightful in asking the bigger questions around drugs and drug policy on the Oxford Brookes University Library blog.

In terms of the challenges brought about by recent evolutions in global drug markets there are two special issues hosted by the International Journal of Drug Policy and Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy (behind paywalls, unfortunately) that bring together various international perspectives on where we’ve been and where we might be heading.

What are you currently working on?

I do have a growing interest in cultural criminology, the field of scholarship that largely questions popular representations of crime and deviance*** in the news, film and other media. As part of that, I’m currently looking to explore the meaning and depictions of violence in dystopian crime films such as The Purge.

Thank you very much for the interview!


About Symbolic violence Back to the text


About OtheringBack to the text


About DevianceBack to the text

The explanations for these academic terms were added by #mybrainmychoice.

About the author:

Liviu Alexandrescu is a lecturer in criminology at the Oxford Brookes University. Before his academic career, he had worked as a news reporter in television and the print news media.

The interview refers to the study “Streets of the ‘spice zombies’: Dependence and poverty stigma in times of austerity” from 2020, published in Crime, Media, Culture: An International Journal.

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