By Dr Anna Ross, an Honorary Research Assistant for Drug Science
A reflection on the article “Coming Out”: Stigma, reflexivity and the drug researchers drug use.
In 2015 I started a PhD in drug policy at the University of Edinburgh. It had been a long journey, and at the age of 34, with two small children I was looking at getting a steady career under my belt. However, the area of research, and my passion, is drugs policy, specifically why it is that people who use drugs are criminalised when there is so much evidence, and anecdotal experience, about the positive role they play in creating community, creativity, enhanced social enjoyment, therapy and relaxation. Having used drugs, both legal and illegal, since the age of 14, and having seen many aspects to drug use, I felt (and feel) passionately about the unjust laws that govern my behaviour. Yet this passion could also expose me to prejudice that would prevent me from getting a professional job, or be taken seriously as a professional in the drugs field.
So it was with this hat on that I started my research into deliberative ways of engaging stakeholders in policy development. As I started to set up the research design, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the language of ‘drug user’, and the way I had to distance myself from this label as if ‘they’ were the ‘other’ in order to appear objective and unbiased. I struggled with whether I should incorporate my own drug use, past and present, into the research through auto-ethnography, and this led to conversations with my supervisors and other academics about the dangers of disclosing such behaviour: the underlying assumption that drug use signals weakness, lack of control, laziness etc. not to mention the criminality of possession (but not consumption). This internal struggle became a paper that I presented to at the 2016 International Society for the Study of Drug Policy (ISSDP) in Sidney, Australia. There I presented a paper entitled ‘Getting Voices to the Policy Table: The role of drug consumers and experiential knowledge in measurements of drug related harm’. The paper created buzz of conversation between many of the participants, and inspired four of us to go off and investigate the topic in more detail.
The questions we were interested in exploring were questions that many early career, and established academics in the drugs field have grappled with, namely (i) are experts at least partly impaired in their understanding of drug use if they do not have that key component of expertise—personal experience; and, (ii) can—or should—researchers be open about their own personal experiences of drug use and the role these experiences have played in shaping their own research? The argument in my initial paper was that the researchers’ prior knowledge and experience of a community is important for understanding the positionality of researcher. Furthermore, our normative realities are shaped by experience, and in regards to drug related harm, our experience of such harm, whether personal or anecdotal, shapes our understanding of solutions to such harm. Those who see drug use as dangerous and problematic will develop research that fits within that paradigm, and policy measure to match that. Finally, by hiding personal knowledge of drug use, researchers are at risk of lacking in transparency, continuing the ‘othering’ of drug users and being complicit in the continued stigmatising of drug users.
In order to explore these issues further, at the ISSDP conference in 2017 the four authors conducted a workshop. In it we asked participants to deliberate on the risks and benefits of coming out about personal drug use in the context of research and teaching, ability to influence policy and public debates, and personal lives. The workshop was the busiest of the conference, and attracted a range of academics. The themes stemming from this workshop became the basis of the 2020 article (yes it really can take that long to write an article!), and went some ways to breaking the silence on academic and drug researchers drug use. Although we do not explicitly ‘come out’ in our paper, we explore the implications of both coming out, and staying in, or hidden.
You will have to read the full (open access) article to explore all the themes, but one of the main themes stemming from both the workshop and the surrounding discussions was the stigma resulting from the criminal nature of drugs. “Criminal behaviour is, by definition, behaviour deemed so unacceptable to society as to be punishable by law” (Ross et. al., 2020, 5), and the threat of formal sanctions, job loss, and social alienation, among many others encourages many consumers of illicit substances to hide their use. Importantly for drug researchers, disclosing previous or current drug use, unless in the context of recovery, runs the risk of them being seen as a drug activists with ‘polluted motives’, which in turn can lead to them being locked out of policy engagement, something I experienced and document in another publication (Ross, 2020).
Yet, as the article argues, to hide ones drug use risks preventing authentic reflexivity. Although traditional Cartesian models of scientific enquiry follow the belief that knowledge exists without the knower, social science research understands that the beliefs, experiences and background of the researcher plays an important role in the framing of the inquiry. Not disclosing prior or current knowledge in the subject can, arguably, lead to lack of transparency in the positionality of the researcher, in addition to denying the inclusion of data that may enhance the findings of the research.
To conclude there are good reasons why an individual may choose not to disclose their current or previous drug using experience. However, as I grappled with the topic I realised that if I hid my experience in this area I would continue to support the ‘othering’ of drug consumers and by extension the stigmatisation of drug use. Until the narratives on drug use include the acceptance that the majority of drugs are consumed in order to produce pleasure then I feel it is incumbent on those in positions of privilege such as myself to continue to challenge the criminal and stigmatising drug policy that exists today in the UK.
Ross, A. (2020) Drug Users as Stakeholders in Drug Policy: Questions of legitimacy and the silencing of the happy drug user. In (Ed’s) Buxton, J., Margo, G., and Burger, L. (2020) The Impact of Global Drug Policy on Women. Emerald Publishing (Open Access) available at: https://www.emerald.com/insight/publication/doi/10.1108/9781839828829
Ross, A., Potter, G., Barratt M., and Aldridge, J. (2020) “Coming Out”: Stigma, reflexivity and the drug researchers drug use. ISSDP. (Open Access) available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0091450920953635