The concept of social constructionism is a notion that knowledge and aspects of the world are not essentially real. Instead, societal agreement creates reality which is given to these aspects. Interactions and reactions create expectations of society, meaning that no facts exist. Ideas and concepts are created, and negative or positive connotations are used to explain these. Social construction depends on society’s structure of an idea and so the concept is surreal. It revolves around “a value, idea, notion or view” which in itself seems to be natural and regular, leading to society conforming to the notion “often subconsciously”.
A drug is a substance which can create psychological and behavioural changes to an individual’s body when consumed, smoked, injected, and so forth. Recently, its definition has shifted to mean an illegal psychoactive substance which is governed under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. This means cannabis is a drug unlike alcohol, and morphine is a medicine when used by doctors but is a drug when used recreationally. The conventional drugs used regularly are; alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, cannabis, opioids, and hallucinogen’s. The changes exhibited by drugs are temporary, but the use of drugs can cause addiction as many individuals experience some form of stimulation, thus, craving to use the drug again. An addiction is a “habit that grows and self-perpetuates relatively quickly”. In the year 2008, 203 million people, globally, were established to be drug users. This figure rose to 255 million drug users in 2015. This clearly indicates a growing economy as this is more than a 25.6% growth within 7 years.
Around two centuries ago, a “new paradigm…defined addiction as a central problem in drug use and diagnosed it as a disease”. Addiction was traditionally viewed as a sin and a choice that individuals would take compulsively. Berridge proposed that addiction “was a disease…of the will”. If addiction is seen as a disease, why are those individuals classed as addicts socially discriminated? Should it not be a societal role to support addicts like other diseased medical patients? Instead, addicts are criminalised. They are seen as diseased whilst being partly responsible for their illness through making bad choices. This is known as the ‘addiction-as-disease’ model. Individuals with this so-called disease should be treated like those with depression or anxiety. Addiction is distinct from actual diseases. Individuals “deviate from what has actually been socially constructed as the ordinary state”. Addiction is like a disorder whereby they are merely a deviation from societal normality, through changing symptoms.
How the problem is socially constructed
The concept of a “drug problem” is associated with negative terms which are used when addressing those who use drugs, fuelling the social construction. Terminology such as ‘disease, ‘dirty’, and ‘addicts’ pour scorn on individuals with a drug problem, which labels, alienates and discriminates against them. This language used by leaders and the media can have a negative effect on the lives of drug users by influencing the public’s perception of them, including those who have no actual drug problem. For example, Chris Christie (American politician) constructed drug users as diseased. These harsh terms can isolate individuals, consequently resulting in them turning to drugs to relieve themselves from stress or to create a euphoric feeling to escape reality.
Law enforcement plays a major role within the current social construction of a “drug problem” in a country, especially in England. Certain behaviours are deemed illegal as they can be seen as harmful. The objective of law enforcement is to prevent individuals from engaging in these actions by using the law to limit this. It can be seen that defendant’s medical treatment for their addiction is decided by judges and not doctors. Punishment for relapsing treatment is normal with drugs and addiction yet, this does not occur when individuals relapse their diabetic or cancer treatments. Furthermore, it is not a crime to be mentally ill and judges recognise that expertise is needed to cope with this medical issue which is not moral. These individuals are deferred to psychiatrists. Yet, with addiction, as drug possession is a crime, judges feel the need to criminalise the individual to put their addictions to a stop.
Who constructed the problem
Those categorised as addicts are seen societally as harmful and are publicly criminalised. They are feared as unpredictable and violent, whilst being sympathised and disempowered due to being mentally and physically sick, leaving them unable to make decisions about their own lives. This is further worsened through constant negative depictions made by the media. In 2010, it was found that the most frequent trigger for a news report on drugs were court cases and arrests in the UK. This emphasises the link between drug users and criminality. A perception is enforced onto society that drug use is immoral and drug users themselves are a risk to society.
There were 2,479 registered deaths in England and Wales related to drug misuse, in 2015. Figures like this create political, media and public interest in drug use, hence socially constructing a “drug problem” within the UK. In 2015, 8.4% of adults had taken a drug which equated to approximately 2.7 million people. This is lower than 2005 where 10.5% of adults had taken a drug that year. Yet, reporters continually use negative words such as; junkie, and criminals, instead of focusing on the reduction of drug use. If a trusted source states something, factual or not, many believe it without question, forming opinions based on the information they are presented with. The media’s negative role can change. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) group was socially constructed as sinful. Yet, the social construction of this view shifted and reconstructed the perception of LGBT as normal in today’s society.
Politicians and leaders worsen the negative image of a country’s “drug problem”. They should be providing truthful information and “correcting the false perceptions of drugs”. People in power have immense influence and this should be used to provide support to all citizens. Here, moral panics can be applied whereby “a condition…or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. It is a stereotype applied and secured by those in power and the media. Moral panics, created by politicians, label the behaviour of drug users, falsely portraying and exaggerating them as dangerous. Drugs are linked to criminality, health problems and immorality especially amongst vulnerable youth. Consequently, the politicians will vow to protect and criminalise drug users, to which they and the media have exaggerated to be a danger.
As children we are told numerous times to stay away from drugs as they are harmful and can lead individuals down a dark undesirable path. As we grow older it can be seen that this side to drugs is merely a social construct. It does not represent realism entirely. For too long drugs have been considered as substances which must be avoided at all costs, and those who use drugs are to be rejected by society and perceived as asocial and deviant. Globally, drugs are seen as a problem when in reality they are not as bad as they seem. Only a minority of drug users experience problems. In America, roughly 23% of those who try heroin will develop problematic use, and this is reduced to 17% for those who use cocaine. In comparison, 32% of those who try tobacco will develop problematic use, yet this substance is still legal throughout most countries. Furthermore, it has been estimated that around a quarter of a billion individuals aged 15-64 used illegal drugs in 2016, and 11.6% of this figure suffered problematic drug use.
One perception within the social construction of a drug problem, is the implication that those who use drugs are defined as criminals. There is a wide construct that drug users are criminal offenders engaging in illegal activity. If drugs used by an individual are illegal, it is clear that the individual is committing a criminal offence. However, this offence is not intended to harm others. Possession and use of drugs, majority of the time, are for personal use. The connection of drugs and crime have risen from the result of the prohibition of drugs itself.
Usually criminal organisations increase the price of the drugs and include a charge for “risk premium for illegality”. Many cannot afford this price increase and so turn to crime to make money to pay for the drugs. Once these individuals are isolated out of society and have obtained a criminal record for themselves, it becomes harder to find jobs. If countries want to treat drug dependence as a medical problem, the justice system cannot continuously arrest individuals for exhibiting signs of addiction. To end the negative social construction, criminalisation of those who use drugs must be put to an end first. One member of parliament stated that “awful harms are caused by the drugs that we ban and restrict”. Hence, if drugs are decriminalised the issue of a “drug problem” and the addiction treatment can be changed.
Drug policy – decriminalisation
If the image of a “drug problem” is constructed differently, the response to it by the public may differ. Public awareness through providing honest information about safety may change the harm occurring through use of drugs. It is evidential that a better impact is made when early intervention is made in a close social environment, such as a school or at home. In the UK and around the world, possession of drugs and drug use is deemed as a criminal offence. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it is unlawful for an individual to have possession of a controlled drug. The general rule of law should be a protection of fundamental rights, whereby acts which are harmful to more than one individual is a crime. Contrastingly, the act of drug use only poses a potential harm to the individual who ingests/smokes/inhales the drug.
It is necessary to change the perception of drug use by altering the current social construction. As aforementioned, the harms associated with using drugs is created and driven by the prohibition of drugs itself. If drugs are criminalised, users will turn to black markets. This will fuel organised crimes to raise money for the increased price of illegal drugs. This is a driving force for violence within a civil society, as those who cannot afford the drugs turn to petty crimes and individuals will turn to altered cheaper drugs to aid their addiction. This results in a society discriminating those who use drugs, and this is an area of drug policy which would be benefited by constructing the issue differently. The never-ending cycle needs to come to a stop.
If countries promoted decriminalisation of drugs and its benefits, the issue of a “drug problem” stigma can be socially constructed differently, with some associated benefits to society and drug users. Drugs can make individuals feel good by elevating moods and inducing euphoria. It can calm individuals down and allow them to find relief from anxiety and pain. Furthermore, many young people are socially constructed as naive due to their association with drugs. However, majority of the time these young people only take drugs to seek thrill through intoxication or for social bonding.
The restrictions between illegal and legal drugs have no correlation with the level of risks associated. Those shamed for using drugs tend to illegally obtain and ingest the drugs. This act of illegality increases potential harms when the drugs are altered and produced, as users cannot confidently obtain legally produced regulated drugs. Consequently, the harms and risks of the drug are increased, leading to a worsened reaction to the “drug problem” in the country. The issue of illegality of drugs and its criminalisation needs to be constructed differently. This would be beneficial through legalisation or regulating the use of drugs. This reduces the number of previously altered drugs which would have increased the harm to the individual and the society. If the drugs are to be legalised, the use could be controlled, much like the use of cigarettes in open public spaces.
Reconstructed drug policy’s
Why, therefore, is drug use criminalised? It could be assumed that it is an endangerment and seen as a moral fibre situation. This may be because it has been widely constructed that drug users tend to commit further criminal offences to make money to fund their addictions. However, if a country can reconstruct the issue of smoking tobacco, surely it could construct the issue of a “drug problem” differently? Smoking was once looked upon as a fashionable and soon was promoted as a societal normality. It was intertwined into British and American culture constructing it as normal. Once the risks of tobacco were brought into the spotlight, smoking was no longer a normality in Britain. It was discouraged by the media through stories of lung cancer and many health problems. This led to a smoking ban in all enclosed public areas of England under section 2(1) of the Health Act 2006.
Why construct issue differently?
If the media and political parties were to promote and publicise some of the beneficial aspects of drugs, the issue of a “drug problem” would be positively socially constructed. Drugs are also used to self-medicate and relieve pain. Individuals suffering from various mental health issues take drugs to destress and use mind-altering substances to allow them to cope with dire situations. The use of certain drugs can enhance the performance of many individuals under pressure to perform well, both academically and athletically. Constructing the drug problem differently to illustrate how beneficial they could be in this currently competitive world would result in a positive response. There would be reduced stigma, reduced crime numbers, and possibly higher levels of support to those seen to have a drug problem.
Many religions, such as Rastafari groups and Hindus, use cannabis in a spiritual context. Hindu scripture notes that cannabis is one of the five sacred plants on earth. Within Hinduism, cannabis is known as a source of happiness. Surely if a substance such as wine can be used and accepted in communion to Christians, Hindus can use cannabis for the worship of Shiva and the Holi festival? Especially as there is a right to religious freedom in England, and when alcohol causes more harms than cannabis. Our perception of alcohol is that it is relatively safer than illegal drugs, though it is one of the most harmful substances if misused. Evidence shows that the most dangerous drug in terms of harm is alcohol. Alcohol is not classed as a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This illustrates that alcohol drinkers are not socially constructed to be as negative as illegal drugs and does not have the threat of punishment despite the harms.
Presenting a case
Cannabis is a mild hallucinogenic drug which is usually smoked or ingested illegally to get ‘high’ (colloquial way of describing intoxication by certain drugs) and is popular amongst all age groups. It can induce feelings of happiness and cause time to feel slowed down. Cannabis can make individuals feel nauseous, lethargic and can demotivate individuals if smoked regularly. The negative effects are widely exhibited on social media, the news and by leaders. It is constructed as a hazardous drug which can lead to psychosis. In 2015, 6.5% of adults in England and Wales were recorded to have had used cannabis (2.1 million individuals). Only 21 deaths caused by cannabis misuse were recorded. There are no direct links between cannabis and death, yet, cannabis is still socially constructed to be harmful. Conversely, alcohol which is a legal substance has not yet been constructed as a problem within countries. Nevertheless, in 2016 it was recorded that 7,327 deaths were caused by alcohol intoxication in the UK. This figure is greater than that of cannabis. Yet, alcohol consumption stays legalised when the risks are far more fatal than that of cannabis.
The benefits of cannabis, and many other drugs, are rarely brought to light. Cannabis can be used to treat many types of acute/chronic pain including; rheumatoid arthritis, neuropathic pain and multiple sclerosis. It can be used to remedy nausea in cancer and HIV patients. To construct the drug policy beneficially, the media and political parties need to be involved. Politicians and leaders of countries need to be open-minded towards pressure groups who are pro-cannabis, by listening to their views and researching the potential benefits of cannabis. Leaders can then provide their political/financial support to educate and bring light to the positive side of cannabis through the media.
If the issue is successfully constructed differently, cannabis use can be regulated thoroughly, much like other countries. Leaders of Uruguay and Canada have recently used their power to guide and respect users of drugs by agreeing to legally regulate cannabis. They have decided to construct the negative issue of cannabis in a way which will be beneficial to all. Reconstructing the issue of drugs can work and this is evidential through Portugal’s decriminalisation which has led to a significant decrease in stigmatising views of those who use drugs. Evidently, respect and great leadership can construct issues differently in a way that is beneficial to everyone.
Just under a third of adults in England and Wales had been recorded to have used cannabis in 2015, which was above the European Union’s average. This can be reduced if the constructs revolving around England’s “drug problem” is changed. In the Netherlands, legislation was adjusted to allow decriminalisation of cannabis in 1976 to avert the negative stigma of those who used drugs. Due to this change in legislation, the Netherlands now has one of the lowest problematic drug use in the European Union. This “intelligent policy of drug decriminalisation for 50 years” has meant that “there are not even prisoners to fill Netherlands prisons”. This was a result of constructing the issue of the country’s “drug problem” differently. The response was beneficial not only to the country and the public, but the users of drugs. If the current negative view of cannabis is constructed through a different lens, potential benefits may be reaped.
It will be extremely beneficial if the issue of a “drug problem” was constructed in a positive way, as individuals will be prevented from altering substances (which would be more harmful than regulated legal substances). One member of parliament stated that it is “wrong that we criminalise people for using a substance less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol – a substance that the overwhelming majority of people find pleasant, relatively harm-free and even a rewarding experience to take”.
It is statistically evident that globally, many individuals use drugs albeit for medicinal purposes, social bonding or even to gain a feeling of pleasure. Yet, it is clear that there is no real “drug problem”. The concept of a “drug problem” within a country is created through opinion and strong influences by the media and politician’s. It is not realistic to use the phrase “drug problem” within a country as this problem is merely socially constructed. It can be deduced that those who use drugs are susceptible to various stigmas which are extensively accepted by societies rather than actually being researched fully before stereotyping. Evidently, countries have a drug perception problem. To say a country’s “drug problem” is socially constructed is merely a way of stating that the number of those who use drugs is rising and these individuals are dangerous, so a “drug problem” exists. Yet, this social construct is simply a result of stigma driven by the criminalisation of drugs and those who use them. Like prohibition, stigma exacerbates the harms that can be associated with drug use through distancing people from their communities, which worsens the socially constructed conception of a “drug problem”.
Ultimately, it would be beneficial to construct the issue of criminalisation of those who use drugs and the illegality of drugs which are potentially less harmful (e.g. cannabis) than those currently legal (e.g. alcohol). This would be beneficial to both society and users of drugs. Our current perception of the “drug problem” is what is driving the mass criminalisation of drugs. Legalisation and regulations should only be made on pragmatic grounds, not ideological grounds. It is necessary for areas of drug policy to be analysed with regard to benefits and drawbacks of the drug, before a different construction of the issue is made. The criminalisation, illegality and current social construction of illegal drugs “further shape the actual effects” on those who use drugs, through society and the environment in which it is used. If drugs were normalised through media and politics, societal constructions would alter, which would undoubtedly prompt a beneficial response to drugs through reduced stigma and lowered crime rates.