The Language of Prohibition
In this War on Drugs fought on the level of the symbol, “verbal weapons” are “a powerful means of exerting influence” (Brekle 1989: 88 and 83). The importance of language in prohibitionist politics should not be underestimated. As Edelman (1977: 58) argues, language “is never an independent instrument or simply a tool for description”. Linguistic theory recognizes that “language is always an intrinsic part of some particular social situation”, and as such, “language, thought, and action shape one another” (ibid). In particular, Edelman argues, language shapes political action and thus language cannot be separated from politics:
It is language about political events, not the events in any other sense, that people experience; even developments that are close by take their meaning from the language that depicts them. So political language is political reality; there is no other so far as the meaning of events to actors and spectators is concerned (1988: 104).
If political language is political reality, than we must look towards language to understand our reality of prohibition. This chapter will focus on the interplay between politics and language in constructing prohibitionist discourse. Using Edelman’s excellent analysis on the construction of the political spectacle, I will discuss how our perceptions of and responses to both drug use and prohibition are constructed and sustained through linguistic cues (Edelman 1998:132). This chapter will also address some of the specific language usage in prohibitionist discourse, such as the importance of “condensation symbols” and metaphors (Elwood 1994: 4). As well, the problematic definitions of terms such as drugs, and the powerful language of what Edelman (1977) calls the “helping professions”, will be examined in detail.
To deal with the uncertainty that life holds, people often turn to religion and government “to cope with anxieties they cannot otherwise manage” (Edelman 1998: 131). It is easily recognized that religious language has the power to both “excite and mollify fears”, but it is “seldom recognized that politics can do so as well” (ibid). But the language of politics is as potent as the language of religion. In a setting where people turn to the government to deal with concerns about crime, terrorism and the economy, “linguistic cues evoke prestructured beliefs regarding the nature and causes of public problems” (ibid). People are susceptible to political language because it generally comes from “sources people want to believe are authoritative and competent enough to cope with threats” (ibid: 132). Thus, while the beliefs we hold about controversial issues such as drug use may be problematic, “they are likely to be accepted uncritically because they serve important functions for peoples’ self-conceptions and justify their political roles” (ibid).
In order for policies to be accepted uncritically, social problems like our “drug problem” must be constructed to entail a certain amount of contradictions. As Chapter One demonstrates, one contradiction in our perception of the drug problem is the reliance on either a moral failure or disease model of drug use. While both models attach guilt to drug use, the moral failure model focuses on drug use as a dangerous, immoral and criminal act. The disease model depicts drug use as a sickness (albeit a sickness caused from immoral actions) requiring medical intervention. These two explanations for drug use are likely to cause us confusion because while we may prefer one explanation over the other, we often see them both as valid. Edelman argues that conflicting social cues “create ambiguity about the social world that readily transforms itself into ambivalence and acquiescence respecting public policy” (1988: 15).
Thus, while ambivalence certainly exists towards drug policy, there are also those who challenge the government’s stance on drug use. Perhaps not surprisingly (as is evidenced by the events surrounding the Le Dain Commission Inquiry), this challenge has little effect on existing policy. Edelman (1988: 18) explains that this is because the explanations and remedies proposed as a solution to social problems (i.e. prohibition) are never meant to be fully supported. The solution or explanation “is offered to be rejected as much as to be accepted. Its function is to intensify polarization and so maintain the support for advocates on both sides” (ibid). By having advocates that both support and oppose prohibitionist policies, the government is able to both maintain stability and limit the discourse. Elaborating on Foucault’s idea of discourse, Ward (1997: 129) explains that discourses “have to allow for limited change and dissent”:
For example, literary critics will disagree over the quality of a particular poem or the meaning of a particular play, but this will not threaten the discourse of literary criticism itself. Indeed, such internal disagreements are crucial in keeping the discourse up and running. Nevertheless, discourses put a limit on what is sayable at any one time….
Stability in discourses result because the rhetoric of both sides becomes institutionalized “minimizing the chance of major shifts [in opinion] and leaving the regime wide discretion, for there will be anticipated support and opposition no matter what forms of action or inaction occur” (ibid:18-19). This “linguistically generated process” of polarizing concerned groups “gives the political process an appearance of dynamism and tension that rarely has any bearing upon its outcomes” (ibid: 20).
Thus, Edelman argues that our social problems, and the subsequent response of the public to these problems, are constructed or at least manipulated. But this construction isn’t always deliberate. In the case of public opinion, it usually “echoes the beliefs authorities deliberately or unconsciously engender by appealing to fears or hopes that are always prevalent” (Edelman 1977: 50). What are the fears that continuously plague the public? According to Edelman, suspicions of the poor and unconventional are unconsciously close to the surface for many (ibid). This is evident when one considers “which kinds of observations of social problems readily come to attention and remain vivid and which kinds are seldom noticed” (ibid: 14). Political language becomes “especially vivid and memorable when the terms that denote [social problems] depict a personified threat: an enemy, deviant, criminal or wastrel” (ibid). Thus, because drug users can easily be categorized as deviants or enemies, prohibitionist language exerts a powerful reminder that drug use is a problem that must be kept on the front burner of the political agenda.
Edelman (1977) provides an interesting analysis of the political construction of enemies. He regards the construction of enemies as “a frequent and recurring form of political categorization” that has some “striking characteristics” (1977: 32 and 34). For example, the categorization of enemies is often controversial as not everyone holds that the targeted group are actually enemies. “The very fact that their categorization is controversial seems to intensify the fears of those who do perceive them as threats, for their own rationality is at stake. Belief in the reality of this enemy becomes the test of their credibility and the touchstone of their self-esteem” (ibid). In addition, those defined as enemies are usually a marginalized, “relatively powerless segment of the population” (ibid). Another characteristic of political enemies is that they “are thought to operate through covert activities” (ibid). Thus, while they may act and dress as normal citizens, “they are really engaging in secret subversion, dangerous to others and themselves” (ibid). In this way, enemies are separated from “legitimate antagonists” who are depicted as openly hostile yet humanly equal opponents (Edelman1988: 67).
Language is an important part in the construction of enemies. First of all, while “language ostensibly depicts its referent as the enemy, it is directed as well against people who fail to share its point of view” (ibid: 73). In the construction of drug users as enemies, terms such as junkie or pusher “challenge the ideology of humanists and liberals and associate them with the named enemy” (ibid: 74). This type of language creates polarization. “By intensifying the debate it makes the issue more salient and attracts support and resources for both sides” (ibid).
Second, “the language of enmity erases reasonable calculation and perspective and overwhelms consciousness” (ibid: 75). The result is a “loss of perspective” particularly concerning what measures should be taken against the enemy (ibid). An example of this loss of perspective is the harsh penalties imposed on drug users. As Edelman argues, “for a time it was common in some American states to sentence people convicted of possession of small amounts of marijuana to prison for forty years, an action manifestly related to an assumption about the inherent evil in the person rather than to the harm that comes from smoking pot” (ibid).
Thus, the political construction of enemies provides linguistic cues which “engender intense emotion and punitiveness” (Edelman 1977: 33). Enemies are regarded as such “a serious threat that their physical existence, their most characteristic ways of thought and feeling, or both must be exterminated or ruthlessly repressed” (ibid). Often, the creation of enemies goes hand in hand with another political linguistic device: the national crisis.
Edelman (1977: 45) argues that the word “crisis” is perhaps the most powerful political term as it “connotes a threat or emergency people must face together…it suggests a need for unity and common sacrifices”. While crises are frequent occurrences, “it is politically necessary to accept each crisis as unique, unexpected [and] a blatant deviation from the usual state of affairs” (ibid: 46). By perceiving each crisis as unique, we are less hesitant to make the sacrifices necessary to overcome it:
The belief in a crisis relaxes resistance to governmental interferences with civil liberties and bolsters support for executive actions, including discouragement or suppression of criticism and governmental failure to respond to it. The recurrence of crises is bound to encourage less critical acceptance of governmental actions that would otherwise be resisted (ibid: 48-49).
Thus, the concept of crisis, particularly if it concerns the threat of enemies, is a powerful linguistic device.
In the parlance of prohibition, drug use is in a national crisis. The idea that drug use is increasing at an alarming rate implies a threat of takeover of the enemy – in this case drug users and the marginalized groups we associate with drug use. The “crisis” of drug use is especially powerful because it is a “condensation symbol” (Elwood 1994: 4). As Elwood explains, condensation symbols are “names, words, phrases, or maxims that evoke discrete, vivid impressions in each listeners mind and also involve that listeners most basic values” (ibid). Thus, the word “crisis” gives the listener an impression of a serious threat and invokes heroic values such as self-sacrifice to triumph at all costs.
Another powerful linguistic device is metaphor. Metaphor, according to Elwood, is important for two reasons. “First metaphors can evoke strong emotional responses in listeners. Second metaphors provide both information and perspectives through which listeners can understand issues” (ibid: 22). Thus, metaphors are more than just figurative language (ibid). “They constitute the ways to think about issues, they are the issues as people experience, feel, and believe them” (ibid). By casting the drug issue as a metaphorical war, policy makers are playing a powerful linguistic game which affects the very way in which we conceptualize drug use. As Elwood explains, “the pattern for war includes soldiers and enemies, attacks and defenses, progressive victories and ultimate victory that vanquishes the enemy” (ibid). Ultimately, it provides us with the perspective that illicit drug use must be fought and not understood.
The previous chapter discussed the symbolic aspects of the drug war metaphor in some detail. I will now focus on the linguistic importance of the drug war metaphor. For example, by using the metaphor of war to conceptualize the drug issue, politicians and policy makers can use the tools of war to advance their cause. One such tool is wartime propaganda – the manipulation of language to advance the goals of one side (Brekle 1989: 83). The purpose of wartime propaganda is to rouse feelings “be they feelings of fear or timidity, the will to win or the impulse to destroy” (ibid). These feelings are “evoked by particular groups in positions of power who are interested in the emergence or the continuance of a particular state of war” (ibid). Thus, wartime propaganda is “designed to control, not to inform” (Alexander 1990: 61).
Brekle (1989) provides seven basic features of British propaganda during the First World War (85-86). The overlap between these features and the propaganda employed in our current War on Drugs is surprising. The following is a list of Brekle’s features of World War I propaganda and the corresponding features of Drug War propaganda:
1. Propaganda during World War I involved stereotypes. For example, Germany was stereotyped as an aggressive, militaristic society “in order to bring home the terrifying consequences of defeat” (Sanders and Taylor 1982: 136). In the War on Drugs, we stereotype drug users. We usually associate drug users with the “dangerous classes” – the poor, the unconventional and racial minorities.
2. World War I propaganda often used names with negative connotations. Terms such as “Hun” or “Boche” “came to personify a particular perception of the quintessential immorality of Prussian militarism for causing the war and for its more inhumane excesses (ibid: 137). This can be compared to Drug War propaganda that commonly refers to users as “junkies”, “druggies” or “pushers”.
3. Propaganda in the First World War also suppressed or selectively presented “the facts”. The British government placed a ban on reports of Zeppelin raids for fear that if the Germans learned that they were having an effect, the raids would be increased (Haste 1977: 31). Suppression or selective representation of the facts is also occurring in the War on Drugs. As will be shown in the next chapter, the government suppresses research that shows that the use of illicit drugs does not always lead to addiction or depravity.
4. World War I propaganda involved reports of cruelty. “Stories of rape, murder and mutilation accompanied the fall of all the towns in Belgium and France as the Germans advanced” (ibid: 82). Current Drug War propaganda also employs sensationalized accounts of the cruelty of drug dealers. Violent Columbian drug cartels who would go to any means to distribute their product, as well as unscrupulous drug dealers who prey upon innocent youth in school yards are all popular media images.
5. War propaganda often employed slogans, for example “Take up the sword of justice” (ibid: 57). Slogans are also used in our Drug War propaganda such as “Just say no!”
6. Propaganda of the First World War employed one-sided reporting where “small victories were exaggerated and defeats were glossed over” (ibid). For example, the British government’s official response to the Zeppelin raids was that “damage has been slight” (ibid: 31). Propaganda in the War on Drugs is similar. An example of the exaggeration of Drug War victories involves reports of RCMP drug seizures. Staged media events often show the RCMP posing in front of a table where sums of confiscated money and drugs are displayed. In reality, these small victories rarely make a dent in slowing the drug trade.
7. Propaganda in the First World War used the so-called “bandwagon effect”: the idea that everyone must join-up and support the war. One popular war poster depicted the boy scouts “doing their share for the war effort” (Sanders and Taylor 1982: 138). The message was clear: everyone should become involved in the war effort. The “bandwagon effect” (the theme of social solidarity and community involvement) is also an important aspect of Drug War propaganda. In one publication, Health Canada calls us to become a part of the Drug War effort: “We all have a role to play” (1991: 5).
Thus, propaganda is an integral part of the War on Drugs. As Alexander (1990: 61) argues, Drug War propaganda is “extraordinarily simple, repetitive and violent”. Like all wartime propaganda, “the biggest cost of Drug War propaganda may be the systematic reduction of peoples’ ability to think intelligently about drugs” (ibid: 71).
While the Drug War metaphor may hinder our ability to discuss drugs in an intelligent manner, other linguistic factors are equally important in determining how we conceptualize drugs. One such factor that the debate on drugs is particularly susceptible to is problematic definitions. The fact that words such as “drugs” can be defined contextually by different interest groups means that these words lend themselves easily to manipulation.
Zimring and Hawkins (1992) explain that in terms of defining drugs, three schools of thought exist. The first are the legalists who define drugs as substances which are prohibited. According to legalism, “all illegal drugs are similar to one another and quite different from drugs that are not prohibited” (ibid: 8). Illegal drugs “represent a threat to the established order and political authority structure” (ibid). For legalists then, the concern about illicit drugs lies not in their chemical nature, but in the idea that illegal drug use represents an “act of rebellion [and] a defiance of lawful authority” (ibid). For this reason, the legalists “regard as irrelevant any claim that a particular prohibited substance is non-toxic” (ibid). Similarly, concerns over the possible harms caused by legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco are often dismissed by the legalists as the consumption of these drugs does not represent a defiance of political authority.
Public health generalism is the second school of thought identified by Zimring and Hawkins. Public health generalists define drugs as any psychoactive substance that has the potential to be abused, whether it is legal or illegal. This school of thought is concerned with “harm reduction” –reducing the harmful consequences of drug use such as “health costs, time off from work, family problems and a shortened life span” (ibid). According to public health generalism, “many different drugs produce the same type and extent of dependency costs and that in this respect most drugs have been created equal” (ibid). Also, most abusable drugs can potentially cause equal harm (ibid). Public health generalists hold to the disease model of drug use and thus feel that drug users are in need of medical treatment.
Unlike public health generalists, cost-benefit specifists do not believe that all drugs have the potential to cause equal harm. According to this school of thought, some drugs are more dangerous than others. What drugs are prohibited should thus be based on a balance between the costs of abuse and the costs of enforcing prohibitive laws (ibid: 9). Thus, cost-benefit specifists might argue that heroin should be left as a prohibited substance while marijuana should be legalized.
Drugs, then are defined in very different ways depending on who has a vested interest in their particular definition. As will be shown in the next chapter, the federal government often see-saws between a legalist and a public health generalist definition of drugs, depending on what part of their drug policy they are trying to emphasize.
The Language of the “Helping Professions”
The role that public health generalism plays in defining drugs, demonstrates that the language used by groups that we would normally consider non-political (i.e. the “helping professions”- doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and so on) also “functions as a form of political action” (Edelman 1988: 107). Thus the language of the helping professions plays an important role in shaping our drug policy.
The emergence of the disease model of drug use has redefined the key players in the formation of drug policy. Where once law enforcement dictated the development of policy, now doctors, psychiatrists and social workers are called upon to define such important policy determinants as “drugs of abuse”, “addiction”, “treatment” and so forth. In their casting of drug use as a health issue, the helping professions have defined and justified their role as “helpers” while also defining the status of those who are deemed in need of help (Edelman 1977: 58). As Edelman explains, to portray a social problem as a medical issue “is to establish superior and subordinate roles, to make it clear who gives orders and who takes them, and to justify in advance the inhibitions placed upon the subordinate class” (ibid: 59).
While the political evocation of social problems and their proposed solutions often results in resistance and hence the polarization of interest groups, the medicalization of social problems rarely arouses “resentment or resistance” (ibid: 60). As Edelman explains, with the medicalization of a social issue, a political relationship is superimposed “on a medical one, while still depicting it as medical” (ibid). The reference to the political system is so subtle that it:
frees the participants to act out their political roles blatantly, for they see themselves as helping, not as repressing. In consequence, assaults on peoples’ freedom and dignity can be as polar and degrading as those typically occurring in authoritarian regimes, without qualms or protest by authorities, clients, or the public that hears about them (ibid).
Another reason why the medicalization of social problems rarely meets with resistance is because the language of the helping professions is authoritative. For example, even though many ambiguities exist in defining such terms as mental illness, “speculation and verified fact readily merge with each other” (ibid: 61). This can further be explained using the concept of addiction. As will be demonstrated, the disease of addiction is an ethical rather than a medical diagnosis. However (for reasons which will be discussed in Chapter 5), the medical profession continues to present addiction as a verifiable, neurologically based, disease. The language of the helping professions “dispels the uncertainty in speculation and… reinforces ideology” (ibid). In our case, the naming of addiction as an actual disease, dispels the uncertainty of what actions constitute addiction (a matter that is much debated). It also reinforces the ideology that certain drugs are thus addictive in and of themselves.
The authority of medical language, and its tendency to merge mere speculation with scientific fact, has been extremely important in shaping drug policy. Prohibition persists because certain substances have been defined as addictive and addiction itself has been defined as a disease that requires medical intervention. However, as mentioned above, the concept of addiction is not verifiable fact. As recent scholarship shows, defining addiction and addictive substances has always been problematic.
Shore and Wright (1997: 18) argue that a key to understanding government discourse involves understanding how certain keywords change in use and meaning. “These semantic shifts,” it is argued, “provide fingerprints for tracing more profound transformations in rationalities of governance” (ibid: 19). “Addiction” is a keyword that has experienced a shift in meaning and use. Stemming from the Latin addicere which means “to give over”, addiction, in its traditional usage, had both positive and negative connotations (Alexander 1990: 112). An addictus in Roman law was “a person legally given over as a bond slave to his creditor” (ibid). However, the word also meant “admirable devotion” (ibid). In the English language, the word addiction traditionally meant “a strong inclination toward certain kinds of conduct, with little or no pejorative meaning attached to it” (Szasz 1985: 6). Szasz (1985) gives some pre-twentieth century examples of addiction found in the Oxford English Dictionary: one could be addicted to civil affairs, to useful reading, and also to bad habits (ibid). However, despite the fact that alcohol and other drugs were used and probably “misused” for centuries, addiction was not associated with drug use until the nineteenth century.
With the emergence of the temperance movement, the word addiction came to be associated with habitual drunkenness and opium use (Alexander 1990: 113). Alexander argues that this narrowed definition of addiction was used “to arouse distaste and pity towards habitual drunkards and public support for prohibition” (ibid). While other words such as “intemperance” were also used by the movement, addiction survived “perhaps because it sounded more like a medical term, and was used by the movement’s most famous medical man, Benjamen Rush” (ibid). With the temperance movement, the definition of addiction was thus transformed. No longer simply a good or bad habit, addiction came to refer “to almost any kind of illegal, immoral, or undesirable association with certain kinds of drugs” (Szasz 1985: 6).
In 1934, the American Psychiatric Association classified drug addiction as a disease for the first time (ibid: 7). While “alcoholism”, “morphinism” and “cocainism” were recognized as diseases by 1887, the recent inclusion of “addiction” as a disease is evidence of the “conceptual, cultural and semantic transformation in the use and meaning of the term” (ibid). Thus addiction was not “an independent medical or scientific discovery, but…part of a transformation in social thought grounded in fundamental changes in social life” (Berridge and Edwards cited in Alexander 1990: 114).
That the “disease” of addiction resulted from a transformation in social thought rather than from an actual medical discovery is evidenced by the fact that “experts have never been able to agree on a scientifically meaningful definition of the disease of dependence, nor have they attained consensus on the criteria by which a diagnosis should be made” (Blackwell, 1988b: 162). For example, the World Health Organization (WHO), includes the “tendency to increase dosage” and a “psychological, sometimes physical dependence on the effects of the drug” as characteristics of drug addiction (cited in Szasz 1994: 373). But, as Alexander (1990: 123) tells us, tolerance and withdrawal are not necessarily correlates of addiction, nor are they a major part of its cause. Research indicates that repeated use of cocaine, for example, increases sensitivity to the effects of the drug rather than tolerance (ibid). Likewise, it is a matter of debate whether cocaine produces withdrawal symptoms at all (ibid). On the other hand, drugs which are not considered addictive such as imipramine (an anti-depressant), have been known to produce withdrawal symptoms (ibid). “As well, tolerance develops to the sedative effects of the phenothiazenes and to other drugs that are not addicting” (ibid). If tolerance and withdrawal are not necessarily determinants of addiction, then even the WHO’s definition of addiction rests on shaky ground.
Szasz (1985), Alexander (1990) ,and Blackwell (1988b) concede that addiction is an ethical, rather than medical diagnosis. For example, the WHO’s definition of addiction states that “drug addiction is a state of periodic or chronic intoxication detrimental to the individual and to society” (cited in Szasz 1994: 373). Szasz argues that the WHO’s focus on drugs as a danger to the individual and society clearly places the definition of addiction in the realm of morals rather than medicine. Thus, according to Szasz, addiction is not really a disease, but rather a “despised kind of deviance” (1985: xiii). An addict then is not “a bonafide patient, but a stigmatized identity usually stamped on a person against his or her will” (ibid). Szasz argues that addiction is “created and discovered” by classifying certain substances as “dangerous narcotics”. These substances, he argues, are “neither dangerous nor narcotic, but are particularly popular with groups who’s members readily lend themselves to social and psychiatric stigmatization” (ibid).
While Szasz’s assertion that illicit substances are neither dangerous nor narcotic may be problematic, it is supported by other research. For example, Miller (1994: 11) writes that heroin, usually perceived as a “devil drug” is “far less harmful than alcohol or tobacco”. His research, based on a number of cross-cultural studies, concludes that “heroin users never have an organic need for the substance” (ibid: 7). This is why, he argues, “people can withdraw from heroin in the privacy of their homes on a weekend. They decide heroin is troublesome, go home on Friday and emerge on Monday, cured and feeling fine. This actually happens. Few alcoholics or two-pack-a-day cigarette smokers could duplicate the feat” (ibid: 9).
Erickson (1992: 259) concedes that the supposed danger of narcotic substances is over emphasized. She compares the danger of cocaine use to the danger of snowmobile use:
Deaths related to each of these activities are of similar magnitude in the province of Ontario; both have been a matter of public concern, but the means sought to reduce the harm of snowmobiles include licensing, age restrictions, instruction on safe use, specific areas for use, and warnings about combining alcohol and snowmobile driving. There have been no efforts to ban snowmobiles or imprison their users or sellers.
The dangers of cocaine have been exaggerated, at least its physical toxicity (Weil and Rosen 1993: 47). As Weil and Rosen explain, “both powder and crack cocaine can increase the workload on the heart and cause irregular heart beats, but deaths from cocaine are rare, and the body has a great capacity to metabolize and eliminate the drug from the system” (ibid). While Weil and Rosen recognize that the “possibility of using this drug to excess is very real”, they offer that the “occasional snorting of powder cocaine in social situations is probably not harmful for most people” (ibid).
Thus, the danger of illicit substances is clearly a contentious issue. It is argued that because addiction and the danger of illicit drugs are arbitrary ideas, they cannot be used to justify a War on Drugs (Alexander 1990: 125).
Alexander (1990) believes that addiction is a Drug War definition that defines deviant, rather than actual medical behavior. While Alexander argues that any drug can certainly be misused, and that any behavior such as gambling can lead to a “negative addiction”, the current concept of addiction is only linked to illicit drugs (ibid: 116). In its present context, addiction classifies all illicit drugs as addictive, and thus all users of these drugs are addicts. Because this ethical definition of addiction implies that certain drugs are addictive and others are not “genuine negative addiction to legal drugs, particularly caffeine, seems improbable in the era of the War on Drugs” (ibid). Alexander points out that the limited use of the term addiction “has denied the other aspects of addiction that modern research and everyday experience confirm: negative addictions that do not involve drugs, centrifugal addiction as a phase in healthy development, and addiction as a temporary refuge when conditions become unbearable” (1990: 125).
Blackwell agrees that one of the main problems with the current usage of the term addiction is that it does not recognize that various levels and styles of drug use, from experimentation to dependence, exist. She argues that the current addiction model depicts drug dependence “as an inevitable slide down a slippery slope toward heavier consumption and more drug-related problems until finally the addict hits rock bottom and appears for treatment” (1988b: 171). Because of the focus on illicit drugs that seems inherent in the definition of addiction, there is little appreciation that, “like the situation with alcohol, a large proportion of users remain at non-addictive levels of use or exit from use before becoming chronically dependent” (ibid).
While addiction is a problematic concept, the continuous usage of the term by the helping professions has given it the status of a medical certainty. This has given doctors, psychiatrists and social workers an inordinate amount of power over those whom they define as addicts. As Edelman writes, “the language employed implies that the professional has ways to ascertain who are dangerous, sick, or inadequate; that he or she knows how to render them harmless, rehabilitate them, or both; and the procedures for diagnosis and for treatment are too specialized for the lay public to understand or judge them (1977: 60). Thus, the language of addiction allows the helping professions to “reinforce popular beliefs about which kinds of people are worthy or unworthy” (ibid: 59).
When addiction is labeled as a disease, the idea of “treatment” becomes important in establishing superior and subordinate roles. Edelman (1977: 58) writes that in the language of the helping professions, the concepts of rehabilitation and treatment “evoke a world in which the weak and the wayward need to be controlled for their own good”. Thus, like addiction, treatment cannot be separated from moral concerns. Consider, for example, the current use of methadone to treat heroin “addiction”. Blackwell argues that the purpose of methadone maintenance programs “is to control criminal or other antisocial behavior in heroin dependants” (1988b: 165). “Treatment” by substituting methadone (a medically approved drug) for heroin shows that it is the ceremonial of drug use that must be controlled (Szasz 1985). As Miller (1994: 11) argues, heroin and methadone are essentially the same substance:
Methadone patients are not cured of opiate addiction, but are merely switched from heroin…to the prescription drug methadone. Opiates have “cross tolerance”, meaning that methadone, heroin, morphine, and all the rest can be substituted for one another and will give a person the same effects. A maintenance dose allows addicts to function normally in society. What works with methadone will work with any opiate.
Treatment in this case thus rests on the moral preconceptions that heroin is an “unholy” substance, and thus “self-medication” cannot be allowed (Szasz 1985: 65). Methadone, which can be dispensed by the powerful (physicians and so forth), becomes its “holy” replacement. This is a concept that will be elaborated on in chapter five.
Successful treatment depends to a large extent on “willing submission to authority” (Edelman 1977: 64). This is accomplished by a language that highlights the benefits of treatment “and not the physical, psychological, or economic costs of submission” (ibid). Thus, when a person identified as an addict is forced to undergo “therapy” or to “rehabilitate”, this very language has the power of changing these acts from acts of suppression to acts of liberation and altruism (ibid: 62). As Edelman explains, treatment and rehabilitation denote the ideas “of purification and nurturance; of ridding the inherently or ideologically contaminated of their blight or of ridding the world of the contamination they embody” (66).
Thus the language of the helping professions is a powerful determinant of our drug policy. Edelman (1977: 20) argues that the helping professions become important influences in our perception of the social problems because “they present themselves, and are widely accepted, as legitimate authorities on the causes of these problems and on how to treat their victims”. But as we saw with terms like “addiction” and “treatment”, speculation and medical fact are often merged to make an ambiguous concept appear definitive. Addiction is a socially constructed term that has been used to generalize a wide range of drug use that is neither addictive nor dangerous. Likewise, “treatment” has the moral connotation of enforcing “pharmacological conformity” (Alexander 1990: 86). Essentially, the language of doctor’s, psychiatrists and so forth, disguise a power relationship as a helping one (Edelman 1977: 60).
The purpose of this chapter was to demonstrate how language shapes political action. I argue that to understand our current prohibitionist policies, we must understand the interplay between language and politics. With this accomplished, we can now turn to the issue at hand – the specific language used in federal government publications on Canada’s drug policy. - Extracted from DEMON DRUGS AND HOLY WARS: CANADIAN DRUG POLICY AS SYMBOLIC ACTION By Jennifer Tooley, BA Carleton University, 1994 You can read the whole Thesis online by clicking HERE.