Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Drug Policy Harm Part One: Social Harm Theory -v- Criminology

This post is based on a paper I delivered at the University of Wales, Newport in 2009.  I am delivering a modified version at the University of Bath this Friday.

The Elephant in the Room: Drug and Alcohol Policy as Generators of Violence and other Social Harms

The wide-scale use and abuse of legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco inflicts far more harm on individuals and society than illicit drugs … We need a calm non-sensational approach to policy development in this area and one which places these serious problems in context. (Labour Party (1991) Drugs: A Consultation Document)
Things have gone from bad to worse; there is no possibility of an honest discussion now. Anyone who sticks their head above the parapet and calls for a rational consideration of the drug laws gets it shot off and kicked around by a horde of lunatics (Austin Mitchell, Labour M.P. 10 Feb. 2009 cited in Howker 2009)
This paper seeks to do two things. Firstly to introduce an emerging theoretical paradigm, social harm theory, which seeks to refocus our attention from behaviours defined as 'crime' to a wider set of behaviours, those that generate harm. Secondly it seeks to rethink the issues of alcohol and drug harms and violence by incorporating those caused by state policy alongside those generated by individual consumers, producers and suppliers of currently illegal drugs and alcohol.

My conclusion is that violence and other social harms associated with illicit drugs and alcohol could be dramatically reduced. However this reduction will not be achieved through a focus on the individual user or indeed on drug and alcohol services. Such initiatives, whilst undoubtedly making significant positive contributions to the lives of individual problematic consumers, are effectively swimming against the tide of avoidable violence and other harms generated by existing policy. Reducing violence and other social harms associated with both legal and illegal drugs requires the government to accept its responsibility for public health and to implement an effective framework to regulate all drugs.

Social Harm Theory

Criminology focuses on crime, the criminal and the resolution of problems through the criminal justice system. However, the events and actors we label crimes and criminals operate in a wider context that criminology often ignores. As Carol Smart (1990:77) has observed, the great weakness of criminology is that it:
cannot locate rape or child sexual abuse in the domain of sexuality or theft in the domain of economic activity or drug use in the domain of health. To do so … would involve abandoning the idea of a unified problem which requires a unified response.
This limitation has inspired the development of a social harm perspective which seeks ‘to move beyond the narrow confines of criminology, with its focus on harms defined by whether or not they constitute a crime’ and instead calls for ‘(a)ll forms of harms’ to be ‘considered and analysed together.’ (Hillyard et al 2004:1,2) We are all vulnerable to a wide range of social harms throughout our life course and social harm theory argues that to separate out crimes from other harms considered ‘outcomes of the market economy, … accidents or mistakes’ creates ‘a very distorted view of the world’. (Ibid:1,2) Social Harm approaches lead away from a focus on individual blame and towards policy responses designed to minimise future harms. (Dorling et al 2008)

Social harm theory rejects the boundaries of criminology and the exclusive focus on crime and criminals. It seeks to place crime in the context of other harms, an approach which allows us to respond to the totality of harms generated by a particular problem. For example it allows us in the case of alcohol to consider the harms generated by deregulation alongside the harms caused by the individual drunk and the harms suffered by the solitary middle aged heavy drinker in the quiet of his own home alongside the harms caused by the drunken teenager disturbing the peace of her local community. Social harm theory seeks to embrace not only physical harms but also financial/economic, emotional and psychological harms. (Hillyard & Tombs 2008:15)

Simon Pemberton (2007:33-36) has highlighted the potential of the social harm perspective to explain the failure of criminal justice policies and generate the space for alternative social policies which, freed from the rhetoric of law and order, can genuinely reduce the harm communities experience. Relating this paradigm to alcohol and unlawful drugs provides the opportunity of exploring the impact of these substances within a much wider perspective than criminology offers. It enables us to give equal consideration to legal and illegal acts, explore individual, corporate and state behaviours and to measure the harms directly associated with the drugs alongside the harms generated by failures to control and regulate their market places.  Most significantly for this talk it allows us to look at all drugs, both legal and illegal, within the same paradigm.

Continued ... Drug Policy Harm Part Two: Misrepresenting Harms

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