Drug user liberation: A cause for social work

a post by James Tiptree Sr.

In January this year, the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill had its first reading in Parliament. It now sits in front of the Select Committee, from whom a report is due by the end of July 2018. The Bill calls for an exception to the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act by offering a statutory defence for people to use cannabis as long as they are sufficiently close to death (that is, terminally ill with 12 months left to live). This proposal has prompted a range of submissions – from professional bodies mainly concerned with regulation and with having a firm line  drawn between medical and recreational cannabis ; from organisations for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities who will remain unable to legally access  medical marijuana under this bill; and from groups that seek either the total legalisation of marijuana …or the total legalisation of all drugs.

Two things struck me about these responses. Firstly, there were apparently no submissions from any social work bodies – even though the harms of drug use confront us throughout our work. Secondly, thousands of submissions were received from drug users, as this was clearly a rare opportunity for an ostracised group to have their opinions heard. The absence of the social work voice is a problem, and social workers need to figure out where they stand on drug criminalisation – but the solution is actually right here: in the presence of the voices of drug users.

Firstly though, discussing drug law requires questioning some commonly-held assumptions. For example: if drugs like marijuana, P, and heroin are illegal because they are addictive, then why do other addictive substances – alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, sugar, prescription painkillers – remain legal? If drugs are illegal because they cause physical harm to users, then why guarantee that they’ll be dangerously unregulated by making them illegal? If drugs are illegal because they can kill, then why aren’t highly fatal activities like driving a car or going swimming illegal? And if health risks around driving and swimming can be mitigated by making cars and pools safer, and by offering support and education, why can’t the same be done for drug use? If drugs are illegal because they are a public health issue, why did the government spend $273.1 million in 2014/2015 enforcing drug laws, and only $73.8 million on health interventions for drug users? (Drug Foundation). Note that jail time does almost nothing to curb addiction (Binswanger et al, 2012)Indeed, if the wellbeing of drug users really mattered, then the money spent on arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning them could instead be put towards providing users with community support, housing, and material assistance like in Portugal ( Ferreira,2017) . Viewed objectively, there’s a stupefying arbitrariness and inconsistency to drug law that only begins to make sense when placed historically – revealing a history of racism], colonialism (Drug Foundation, 2015), and capitalist alienation, where the state and its media fueled calculated (Nutt, 2015) eruptions of moral panic and convincingly present a societal, political issue as an individual failing which must be overcome by “professional treatment or moral reformation of the afflicted” (Alexander, 2008, p. 2).

This is where social workers have a role to play. The IFSW cites “liberation” as one of the core goals of social work. If that’s to mean anything, then liberating drug users – some of the most stigmatised people  in society – should be one of our top priorities. In public debates around drugs, the marginalisation of drug users means that they are ignored, and are written off as biased and addled…in spite of the fact that “people who use drugs themselves are often best able to identify what works in their community – a community that others know little about” (Jürgens, 2008, p. 39). If we accept that drug users are oppressed, and if we take seriously the call for drug user liberation, then we must remember this: that “no group of oppressed people ever attained liberation without the involvement of those directly affected by this oppression” (INPUD, 2006). This means cooperatively agitating for drug legalisation and for harm reduction approaches (Drug Foundation) to addiction, “meaningfully involving” drug users in research (Crabtree, 2015), and centring drug user voices in every step of the planning, rollout, and operation of drug policies and programmes.


Alexander, B. K. (2008). The globalisation of addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Binswanger, I. A., Nowels, C., Corsi, K. F., Glanz, J., Long, J., Booth, R. E., & Steiner, J. F. (2012). Return to drug use and overdose after release from prison: a qualitative study of risk and protective factors. Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, 7(1), 3. http://doi.org/10.1186/1940-0640-7-3

Crabtree, A. (2015). “It’s powerful to gather”: A community-driven study of drug users’ and illicit drinkers’ priorities for harm reduction and health promotion in British Columbia, Canada (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0166799

International Network of People who Use Drugs [INPUD] (2006). Vancouver declaration: Why the world needs an international network of activists who use drugs. Retrieved from http://www.inpud.net/en/vancouver-declaration

Jürgens, R. (2008). “Nothing about us without us” — Greater, meaningful involvement of people who use illegal drugs: A public health, ethical, and human rights imperative, International edition. Toronto, Canada: Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, International HIV/AIDS Alliance, Open Society Institute. Retrieved from https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/Int%2520Nothing%2520About%2520Us%2520%2528May%25202008%2529.pdf



Author: socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand

2 thoughts on “Drug user liberation: A cause for social work”

  1. Totally agree. I lived in Amsterdam for nine months and they have really great progressive attitudes towards drug use and recovery from addiction. I believe addiction is a health issue and should be governed as such. The drug courts are doing some good work in terms of streamlining people with convictions into rehabilitation. But much more needs to be done. I agree also that the social work voice is missing from this debate and could add a much needed voice of reason and clear message about drug use and addiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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