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We need to find out more about drug users who do not fit the stereotypes

By James Rowe - posted Wednesday, 3 September 2003

According to widely accepted assumptions, injecting-drug use is an activity wilfully engaged in by a deviant population who embody different values from so-called "mainstream society". Heroin users are typically thought of as stereotypical "junkies" - unemployed high-school dropouts on the fringes of society supplementing their "dole" handouts with the proceeds criminal activity and/or prostitution.

This is far from reality and the reason for the question mark placed over notions of a "mainstream" society with shared values and behavioural norms. It has long been established, by the Victorian Premier's Drug Advisory Council, for example, that recreational heroin users far outnumber dependent heroin users. So why do stereotypes continue to be accepted as accurate representations of injecting drug users? In large part, it is because of the media influence on public perception. The media is the source of drug-related information to those who have no direct contact with drugs or drug users. Consequently, images of drug users are filtered through the media lens. For example:

More than 150 people a month are being attacked on Victorian streets and heroin addicts turned to crime are largely to blame. Street robberies have soared 34.6 per cent in the past year according to official crime figures. Most victims were robbed by addicts wielding knives or blood-filled syringes
(Herald Sun 30 October 1998)


Media misrepresentation of illicit drug users has been critically dissected by academics. These criticisms rarely (if understandably) receive media coverage. However, far less recognised is the role that academics themselves play in perpetuating stereotypes of illicit drug users.

Academic research - the selectively employed source of many media reports - focuses on "marginalised" and problematic drug users. This is due, primarily, to two factors. First, some researchers may hesitate to acknowledge the controlled use of illicit drugs for fear of providing positive role models for prospective drug users. This is justifiable given the undeniably debilitating effects of severe drug dependence.

The second factor is the practical difficulty of researching "functional" drug users, those whose drug use is successfully managed so as not to interfere with other aspects of their lives. Injecting-drug users are one of the most stigmatised groups in Western society and many are, quite reasonably, unwilling to take part in research for fear of their drug use becoming public. This is particularly so for those who feel they have much to lose were this to occur. This includes the employed, those in positions of social responsibility and others concerned to protect their public image.

Instead of a representative sample, researchers access drug users who, given their circumstances, are more visible (the homeless, "street-based users" and those in treatment) as well as those who feel they have nothing to lose by participating in research (the long-term unemployed, those with criminal records). The practice of paying money for research participation also attracts those who have none to begin with

The typical sites of recruitment - treatment centres, Needle and Syringe Programs (NSPs) and the street - have an inevitable effect upon research samples. Treatment centres offer access to those whose drug use has reached problematic levels. NSPs, particularly identifiable shopfront services, are frequented by those prepared to be identified as injecting drug users. Recruiting from the street has an obvious bias that needs no explanation.

As a consequence of these difficulties, there have been few studies conducted with functional drug users. These few studies have focused primarily on medical practitioners abusing legal opiates. However, my own research suggests that a significant population of injecting-drug users continue to evade the attention of academic researchers, law enforcement agencies, the media and treatment services. The majority of these individuals use drugs within the privacy of their homes. They avoid detection and continue to work as productive employees (and employers) whose drug use remains unknown to their workmates.


As part of a recent study at a discreet NSP service (one of several health services under one roof) in inner-Melbourne, I conducted 150 survey/interviews with a representative sample of clients (identified by long-term NSP workers). More than a quarter of participants had gone on to further education beyond secondary school. Five had post-graduate qualifications. Nearly a third were either private home owners or living in private rental properties. A similar number were in paid employment with one public servant earning about $80,000 p.a. The following is an excerpt from the resume of 44-year-old participant:

For the past 15 years I have worked … as a rigger and technical linesman. I am also a qualified horticulturalist … I have experience in the building industry - building houses, internal framing, rendering, painting, plastering as well as French polishing and renovating antique furniture.

My attempts to gain funding to pursue further research with this population have proven fruitless to date. This is frustrating given its importance. The experiences of individuals who live lives in which their drug use is undistinguished would destabilise assumptions upon which punitive drug policies are based.

While legislation remains based on "perceptions' of who drug users are (i.e. helpless criminally inclined "victims"), as opposed to the reality, then zero-tolerance policies will criminalise and marginalise visible drug users while allowing those who do not fit this category -academics, police officers, journalists, public servants, students, opticians, chefs - to continue using drugs within the confines of their own homes free from fear of prosecution. The latter are, for all intents and purposes, model citizens of our mainstream society. What does this say about the existence of a so-called mainstream if not of its shared values and norms of behaviour? What does it say about the association of all drug use with drug abuse?

I would suggest that such questions explain the lack of political support for research into functioning drug users. Despite the difficulties, I have met enough functioning drug users during the course of my professional and personal life to know that such research could be done. The narratives of those who participated would shine light not only upon the reality of drug use in society but also upon the reasons that lead a visible minority into problematic drug use. For far too long the assumption has been that it is the pharmacology of the drug or the pathology of the individual that leads to drug addiction; hence the concentration upon punitive law enforcement policies intended to keep the drug and individual separate. What functioning drug users show us is that drug dependence is often a consequence of lifestyles defined by disadvantage and abuse that have led individuals to rely upon drugs to cope with their personal pain. Nobody makes the choice to become a heroin addict. This is the most unfortunate aspect of continuing stereotyping. It allows policy makers to avoid addressing the causes of drug addiction (i.e. the lack of housing, education and employment opportunities).

Drug-related research should never be used to make generalisations about who uses drugs, why they use drugs or how drug use will affect an individual's life. Nor for that matter should media reports. Research and reports simply offer an insight into those individuals who have participated in a particular study or have been visible and accessible to media outlets.

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About the Author

Dr James Rowe is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Applied Social Research, Department of Social Science and Planning, RMIT University.

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