The word drug has become hugely value laden and many perceive drug users to be deviant. This view pathologises the user and problematizes the drug use. The media, which often exaggerate and sensationalise drug use, fuelling moral panic and public concern, often compound this view. Young people and marginalised groups are often scapegoated as being the cause of our drug problem. Moral judgement is passed on these groups and people desperately seek to rationalise illicit drug use, often surmising some personal deficiency or problem at its root.
Having worked in the drug field for the past five years I am all too familiar with the devastating impact problem drug use can have on individuals, families and communities. I’ve witnessed the effects of drugs on young people and adults first hand. It is all too easy to single out a particular cohort of drug users and lay blame at their feet. Emerging drug trends are often great headline grabbers; however, sensationalised media narratives do nothing to address drug issues and find meaningful solutions. Neknominations, designer drugs, drug related deaths and drug related criminal activities have featured prominently in recent media headlines. Young people are scolded within the media for their drug use and perceived reckless abandon. Drug bingers are demonised without understanding of the complexity of drug use and drug dependency.
The fact of the matter is that drug use is a complex issue. Humans have used drugs for millennia, yet certain drug use and users generate shock, reprehension and fear. Society decides on what drugs are good and what drugs are bad. Society judges drug users differently, often depending on the drug of use and the class, gender or age of the user. Upper class drug users are not stigmatised in the same way as working class drug users. Female drug users are often judged more harshly than male drug users. Adult drug users are treated differently to young drug users.
Misperception, problematic normative beliefs and pejorative assumptions surround drug use. Drug users are often imagined to be shady characters that deserve harsh treatment. Yet drug use and drug problems are not exclusive to one social class. Although there is a correlation between problem drug use and low socio-economic status, recreational drug use is more common among mainstream affluent populations. The most recent Irish general population survey into drug use revealed that illicit recreational drug use (specifically the use of cannabis) is most common among Irish professionals, usually in managerial positions. This challenges the common assumption that drug users are down and outs, or to use the colloquial language - ‘skangers’. Drug users are not all the same; they are diverse in class, ethnicity, gender and age.
Drug use as a social problem will only ever be truly challenged when the complexity of drug use is acknowledged and provided for within policy and service provision. There continues to be a failure to develop and implement gender specific responses to drug use, that are informed by an understanding of drug use as it is positioned within social interaction. Illicit drug use will never be combatted whilst culturally engrained and normative (yet problematic) licit drug use remains unchallenged.
We need less soapboxing and jumping on the bandwagon. We need more honest reflection about our own drug use and less judgement of other drug users. We need to address the structural inequalities and cultural predilections within society that contribute to drug use. Finally … we need to stop laying blame at the feet of young people and the marginalised, and alternatively challenge those in governance to provide comprehensive informed holistic drug services that not only support individual drug users but the social groups to which they belong.
© Clay Darcy, March 2014.
 Lenson, (1990) On Drugs, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.
 Hartman and Golub (1999) ‘The Social Construction of the Crack Epidemic in the Print Media’, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol. 31, (4), pp. 423-433.
 Parker et al (1998) Illegal Leisure – The normalization of adolescent recreational drug use, USA and Canada: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
 Gerald (2013) The Drug Book: From Arsenic to Xanax, 250 Milestones in the History of Drugs, New York: Sterling.
 Plant & Plant, 1992
 Coomber et al (2013) Key Concepts in Drugs and Society, London: Sage Publications.
 EMCDDA (2002) Drugs in Focus: Recreational drug use – a key EU challenge (Briefing 6), Lisbon: EMCDDA.
 IFP - HRB (2013) 2012 National Report (2012 Data) to the EMCDDA by the Reitox National Focal Point, Ireland: new developments, trends and in-depth information on selected issues, Dublin: Health Research Board.
 Plant, (1975) Drug Takers in an English Town, Great Britain: The University Printing House, Cambridge.