‘Tackling Problem Drug Use: A New Conceptual Framework’ by Julian Buchanan, Part 3

Here is the Conclusion to Julian Buchanan’s excellent 2004 paper on the the debilitating nature of marginalisation and social exclusion that many long term problem drug users experience.

‘This paper has argued that the key issues that drug users face are related to discrimination, isolation and powerlessness. Those drug users, who become long-term and dependent, tend to have been disadvantaged and socially excluded from an early age prior to their taking drugs. For many of these people an all-consuming drug centred lifestyle was not the problem, but a solution to a problem.

Social work has a long standing tradition of highlighting injustice, discrimination and inequality, and seeking to empower the service user. Social workers are then, ideally placed to make a significant contribution to draw attention and develop increasing awareness and understanding to the issues of oppression and discrimination that many drug users experience.

This is not to suggest that some drug users don’t warrant adverse reactions, but it is to argue that blanket discrimination is unacceptable. Drug users deserve to be treated as individuals. Rarely has this happened and many drug users have internalised the ascribed negative identities which have only served to further damage their self worth, and hinder their progress.

The Social work values (www.basw.co.uk) of human rights, empowerment, respect for diversity, respect for the person, fair access to public services, equal treatment, self-determination are particularly relevant when working with drug users. When agency staff have worked to these values drug users have noticed the difference and spoken positively of these workers.

If the drugs ‘problem’ is going to be successfully tackled then the wall of exclusion, which is partly constructed and maintained through tabloid shock horror campaigns and populist government propaganda, will need removing.

The emphasis on individually pathologising the drug problem through physiological approaches enforced through drug testing or cognitive behavioural programmes as a condition of Probation Orders needs to be balanced by strategies and services for drug users that acknowledge the present day social context. The structural dimension to drug dependence must be understood and tackled if genuine progress is to be achieved.

The model of Steps to Reintegration model offers an alternative paradigm that conceptualises the notion of discrimination and exclusion. It also enables social work to begin to focus attention upon addressing the gap in the services by promoting structured day programmes, day centres, befriending schemes and sheltered workshops can play.

Challenging discrimination is part of the social workers commitment to Anti-Discriminatory Practice. It is perhaps easier to deliver when society more readily understands and accepts the issues involved, for example, combating discrimination that is directed at older people or the discrimination directed at people with disabilities. However, challenging discrimination towards drug users attracts little support or sympathy. But then challenging racism or sexism 50 years ago may not have gained much support or sympathy either.’