The U.S. illegal drug market is estimated to be worth around $200 billion per annum (UNODC 2014)
There are few things that shock me in relation to the world of drugs research, policy and practice. I have heard young adults’ accounts of the indignities of being strip-searched at festivals. I have witnessed a complete lack of regard for the health and wellbeing of those experiencing dependency difficulties with GHB/GBL. And I have heard, like a repeat drum loop, the “drugs are bad” message from otherwise highly intelligent individuals who would normally question such deterministic and overly simplistic statements.
However, today I was shocked. Every morning I read Drugscope’s fantastic news feed which pops up like an old friend in my university email account inbox. Some stories are interesting and well sourced, others less so, but remain readable nonetheless. Today there was a story about and a link to the new website of the EUropean-wide, Monitoring, Analysis and knowledge Dissemination on Novel/Emerging pSychoactiveS or EU-Madness project, led by a UK university and spanning five countries with multiple partners.
This is why I am shocked. How might an organisation such as the EU, employing the best of European talent in the drugs research field, arrive at the decision to call a wide-ranging project on emergent drugs/novel psychoactive substances(NPS)/’legal highs’ the EU-Madness project? And yes, that is a rhetorical question.
“So what?” What is in a name? To be fair it is quite catchy! However, it is worth reflecting on how this project acts as an exemplar of an ongoing and seemingly willful disregard for the wider geopolitical contexts (War on Drugs anyone?) and the social worlds (consumer capitalist culture anyone?) in which NPS or ‘legal highs’ emerge, are consumed, demand attention, are researched, and ultimately regulated.
Is using the word ‘Madness’ (even as a laboured acronym) really appropriate in our supposedly enlightened and progressive contemporary society? It is as if in the world of drugs research (notably in neuroscience), the last 30 years of sociological questioning of deleterious stereotypes about ‘drugs’ and their users, and the contestation of moralising myths about mental disorders, never happened (see Rogers and Pilgrim 2010 for an excellent introduction to these issues).
Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly (why am I shocked then? Too idealistic as usual!) taking any ‘drugs’ is framed yet again as ‘mad’, and users are positioned as troublesome subjects who disrupt the ‘civilised’ social order in the misguided pursuit of pleasure. And so on and so forth.
No doubt new knowledge about novel drugs which pose fresh risks to us will be generated by the EU-Madness team. They are a nice bunch. Yet I reserve the right to retain my reservations. The familiar emphasis on ‘risks’ as out there, just waiting to be discovered, is typical of official responses to psychoactive substances, legal or otherwise, popular or not. Yet, as eminent drug researchers Ross Coomber and Nigel South recently argued “an informed statement on drug risks (just like drug effects more widely) has to go “beyond” the drug” (2014: 240).
It is a shame they didn’t think of a more appropriate name. The popular Southpark saying “DRUGS ARE BAD” may have been more aligned with the stated project aims and objectives perhaps?
R. Coomber, and N. South. (2014) “Fear and Loathing in Drugs Policy: Risk, Rights and Approaches to Drug Policy and Practice” in B.C. Labate and C. Cavnar (eds.) Prohibition, Religious Freedom, and Human Rights: Regulating Traditional Drug Use, DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-40957-8_12, Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.
Rogers, A. and Pilgrim, D. (2010) A Sociology of Mental Health and Illness, 4th Ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Winner of the BMA Medical Book Award.
Among the most pleasing aspects of being an academic is engaging with young adults who are interested in the same or similar research topics as oneself. So, when an undergraduate student from another university contacted me to ask if I would mind being interviewed for her documentary on “contemporary club culture” which would form part of her final year assessment, I jumped at the chance.
From past experience, these students are incredibly active and passionately interested in what us ageing academics call “youth cultures” or “youth scenes”; it is precisely that passion and interest that drives their desire to study them. Whilst highly motivated and keen, they typically need guidance around how to focus their often broad brush interests, reign in their passion and produce a viable study with that much needed critical edge.
There has been criticism from some quarters that we should not encourage ‘fan research’ among students (nor indeed established academics!) as it has a tendency to produce solipsistic journalistic and sloppy academic outputs. Yet this seems to be a case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, an oddly popular phrase among academics, but maybe that reflection is another blog post for another day!
Some of the most robust and engaging research on dance club cultures has come from what might broadly be called ‘fan researchers’. At a British Academy/University of Manchester event I attended yesterday on ‘Material, Affective and Sensory Turns in the Academy’, I was surprised and pleased to be reminded by Professor David Howes – Canadian Anthropologist and Director of the Concordia Sensoria Research Team (CONSERT) – of Phil Jackson’s fantastic book published in 2004 titled Inside Clubbing: Sensual Experiments in the Art of Being Human, Oxford: Berg. Away from dance club cultures, Paul Hodkinson‘s (2002) book Goth remains for me the paragon of researching a culture from what Paul refers to as a ‘critical insider’ position.
Much has been said and much more needs to be said on ‘fan research’, on insider/outsider research positions, and more practically on what is ‘best’ for our students to be researching in-depth during their precious years at university. What seems abundantly clear however is that encouraging students to harness their passionate interest in youth cultures is rewarding for lecturer and student alike, and can produce some bold pieces of work worthy of our attention.
And so it is in this spirit that I dedicate this blog post to Clodagh whose professionalism through the process impressed me greatly and whose unbound enthusiasm for club cultures research helped reignite mine 🙂
Today sees the release of an Etizolam briefing by the Scottish Drugs Forum. I have been wondering how long it would take for this benzo analogue to come to the attention of (typically experienced) drug users, national and local drug services, and ultimately the UK government. You can read it here.
In Manchester, local services are seeing clients presenting with specific problems in relation to “blues” including withdrawal difficulties, memory loss, rebound anxiety and so on. My verdict on “blues”? Maybe okay to take to get oneself off to sleep post-clubbing, but definitely not something to get into on a daily basis, and certainly not something to be taken lightly.
Look out for a forthcoming study on ‘blag benzos’ by Club Research at Lancaster University.
As a Lecturer in Sociology at Lancaster University, helping students gain an understanding of the contested nature of ‘drugs’ and what we might call ‘the drugs problem’ is often at the forefront of my mind. The challenge is to support student learning about an incredibly complex issue presented in often simplistic and moralistic terms by the media and politicians.
Teaching my final year module Drugs, Crime and Society has been a pleasure this year, with the students really getting stuck into the debates that are crucial in critical drug studies. I hope the book my colleagues and I recently published helped them, and will help others in years to come.
Coomber, R., McElrath, K., Measham, F. and Moore, K. (2013) Key Concepts in Drugs and Society, London: Sage.
Welcome to Clubbing Research, located within the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University, UK. This website is the home of academic research around alcohol, illegal drug use and novel psychoactive substance (NPS) use, the night-time economy (NTE) and dance club cultures or ‘scenes’.