The politics of recovery

There is a widely-held view that drug policy in Britain (and elsewhere) is in the throes of a major transformation. Whereas for the last decade or longer, the policy obsession seemed to be with crime and criminal justice, over the last year or two, this focus has ebbed somewhat, as a new recovery agenda has emerged and rapidly come to the forefront.

One way to read this shift is in ‘epochal’ terms: a ‘governing-through-crime’ strategy giving way to a recovery-oriented one. And for many in the drug field, it certainly feels as if big change is in the air. A noisy grassroots recovery movement even talks of a paradigm shift.

But I am not convinced. In my view, at a strategic level, continuity is much more apparent than change. As I noted in my last post, the new direction in drug policy retains much in common with the previous crime-focused strategy (and, indeed, the earlier harm reduction approach): the same problematization (heroin/crack users as sources of risk to the community); the same conception of drug users (rational calculating choice-makers); and the same strategic response (encouraging/cajoling responsible choice-making to reduce risk).

What has changed is that the most significant type of risk posed by drug users is now seen as being a burden on the public purse by drawing benefits and failing to contribute as a tax-payer. What we are seeing then is not so much a new era of drug policy but rather a new politics of drug policy. In a time of economic recession and public sector cuts, there is a novel set of social and cultural preoccupations and anxieties (coded in the language of ‘cuts’, ‘austerity’ and ‘efficiency’) which is shaping how we frame drug policy – and the emerging recovery agenda fits perfectly with this reframing. But underneath all that, I would suggest that the fundamental strategic pattern in fact remains pretty much the same as it has done for the last 30 years. Plus ça change…

[This post is an adaptation of pages 166-7 in this book]


About Toby Seddon

Professor of Social Science at UCL. Interested in new ideas and thinking about drug policy.
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