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The term “drug” has been both broadly and narrowly defined. At its simplest, it is reserved for substances which are prohibited under criminal law. Deploying this definition, the range of substances classified as drugs varies across time and across jurisdictions. However, typically, it refers to substances such as heroin, (crack) cocaine, ecstasy, and amphetamines.
The terms “drug abuse” and “misuse” are frequently used in policy documents to describe the most harmful forms of drug use which warrant attention. However, there is an emerging consensus that these terms should be avoided because they are highly subjective and judgmental descriptions of patterns of drug use. Instead, the term ”problem drug use is preferred, which typically describes patterns of use which create social, psychological, physical, or legal problems for an individual drug user.
Problem drug use has been defined as a law and order, medical, public health and social problem. Defined as a law and order problem, policy attention is likely to be focused on strategies to reduce the supply of drugs through tackling drug markets or to decrease the demand for drugs through attempts to break the link between drugs and crime through the provision of treatment.
Approaching problem drug use as a medical problem involves equating it with a disease. The development of a medical model for understanding problem drug use was influential in moving understanding away from moral failure. Policies which flow from conceptualizing problem drug use in this way emphasize particular forms of treatment, and have been criticized for failing to appreciate the social causes and consequences of problem drug use.
Perceiving problem drug use as a public health problem stems from a concern about its effects on health and well-being for communities drug users live in. For example, community members may be exposed to used drug paraphernalia. Consequently, advocates of this approach suggest the need to pursue a harm-reduction strategy, which includes practices such as operating needle-exchange schemes and prescribed substitute medication.
Contemporary drug policy is often based upon a range of different conceptualizations of the type of problem drug use poses, which results in a wide range of policies being adopted. These policies are implemented by a varied group of organizations (e.g., criminal justice, health care, and social work agencies). In reality, this may mean that drug users are exposed to seemingly contradictory policies; for instance, policies which have the effect of criminalizing growing numbers of drug users can be pursued alongside policies which increase opportunities for drug users to give up drug use or to use drugs in a less harmful manner.
Problem drug use has also been understood as a social problem. A challenge for sociologists is to explore why problem drug use has been defined in this way and who has done the defining.
- Barton, A. (2003) Illicit Drugs: Use and Control. Routledge, London.
- Blackman, S. (2004) Chilling Out: The Cultural Politics of Substance, Consumption, Youth and Drug Policy. Open University Press, Buckingham.
- Hughes, R., Lart, R., & Higate, P. (eds.) (2006) Drugs: Policy and Politics. Open University Press, Buckingham.
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