One researchers insight into valuing insights

This is an email sent to INPUD from a well respected UK academic and researcher of drugs, Neil Hunt.  In it, Neil gets a few things off his chest, namely feeling a tad guilty for using the information gained from a conversation with a drug user, as his light bulb moment, propelling his research and understanding of blood borne virus transmission forward. Years on, Neil would like to thank this guy, only he cant as he sadly doesn’t know where he is anymore, though he clearly yearns to thank him and tell him how pivotal his knowledge and insights were into channelling his work over the years ahead. However, in talking about it, Neil goes on to highlight how stigma and discrimination collude to rob drug users from receiving proper acknowledgement for the very valuable and ‘hard won’ insights shared with the research and medical community, and upon which many a career and livelihood has been based. Take it away Neil! (Note this writing was slightly edited by me

English: Look out! Look out! Pink elephants on...

LSD tabs, Albert Hoffman called it his 'Problem Child'. Despite this, and unlike many other drug 'experts' Hoffman knew his subject inside and out. Is trying the substance one obsesses over crucial to 'fully understanding' it properly?

A friend – Jon Derricott – visited me recently and now that he is a film whizz, he provided an opportunity to talk about the long-standing, grossly-unequal division between those who acquire knowledge about drug taking and theorise about it by picking drug users’ brains (as a researcher, I’m afraid this has been my job for the last 20 years or more) and the lives of those for whom drug taking is a more innate expression of self (the drug user).

Compared to the emotional and financial investment involved in becoming an active, long-term drug user, in most research situations, the drug user receives precious little financial reward; whereas an industrious academic can make a comfortable living and often gain some modicum of prestige. For example, my own family has largely been supported on academic earnings derived in this way for some 20 years, since I stopped working as a nurse.

Happily, drug users are increasingly challenging the distribution of power over their, usually- hard-won, knowledge. Within the research community, it is clearly naive to say that the credit for all that we know about drugs should accrue to drug users. The chemist, Albert Hoffman, was no particular drug taker when he unintentionally discovered  LSD, yet many would argue that his ‘Problem Child’ is among the most extraordinary drugs ever added to the pharmacopoeia. Likewise, many specialists in public health, epidemiology, psychology, medicine, political science, sociology, international development and so forth make immensely worthwhile contributions at times, without necessarily being drug users. I don’t think these are contributions that we should dismiss just because they don’t originate with drug users…although some do clearly invite challenge!

Nevertheless, there is a fundamental body of knowledge regarding drugs where the person who uses drugs can almost invariably claim to have the greatest expertise; yet she simultaneously finds that prohibition, stigma and discrimination conspire to exclude her from sharing or exploiting this knowledge in ways that may benefit her in her own life, the lives  of her peers, or her wider society.

One has only to think of the amount of questions arising from knowledge concerning how drugs are obtained, used, experienced, combined or otherwise managed, especially in terms of understanding pleasure and the  desire to avoid harm. To a great extent, wisdom in this area originates or resides largely with drug users.

Regarding communication, people who use drugs are a critical audience to engage with concerning understanding our reactions to the massively assorted (and distorted) messages that bombard us across different media, which variously aim to decrease or increase use, or change behaviours.

Closely linked to communications are people’s detailed, often- nuanced understanding of local social networks, which can take years to accrue and map out where power and influence resides that can strengthen and confer benefits on communities, impede it or, conversely, identify where it is lacking and efforts might well be wasted.

Among activists, one key source of frustration arises from…. the weak structural power of the person who uses drugs arising from the criminalisation of a fundamental part of their lives means, that due credit and recognition is rarely given or received for intellectual property they have invented or helped develop.

To summarise what I think I’m saying here, any worthwhile analysis of drugs and drug policy requires knowledge and skills that are drawn widely from the many people who use drugs- and their various relationships with drugs (including spells when they may forego using one or more).

This can improve lives , if used equitably, in good faith, alongside knowledge derived from complementary spheres of learning. Yet at present, forces such as prohibition, stigma and discrimination obstruct or distort our understanding by excluding or marginalising many of those people whose knowledge is pivotal. Consequently, we fail to value drug users’ knowledge both intellectually and financially,  relying instead on approaches mediated through academia (that may sometimes be good, as I’d naturally have to point out!) but are prone to obstruct or distort a fully valid understanding of drugs in our society and of the people who use them.

From a personal standpoint, for the anonymised speed injector in Maidstone whom I interviewed around 1991 and who spelt out these issues about paraphernalia sharing for me for the first time and – with others around the world – helped fundamentally reframe our international understanding of the potential role of this in the transmission of infections/bbvs, rather than expecting to be vilified, there is an urgent need to move to a situation where he should expect to be canonised for his insights.

In just the same way, we need to strengthen our arguments and fight to create conditions where all people who use drugs can contribute openly, fully and freely to the knowledge on which those assorted practises within the drugs field and as such our livelihoods, are based.


PS I know that may of you here have been saying this for a very long time and nothing I’m saying here is new. Jon’s film just gave me a chance to try to repay a bit of a debt that I’ve had on my mind for 20 years or so  😉


About Erin

Freelance writer and journalist for the global drug user press
This entry was posted in peer insights, peer involvement, Research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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