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Home > Organising drug users: insights from Britain.

Pike, Brigid (2011) Organising drug users: insights from Britain. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 37, Spring 2011 , p. 6.

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In a recent study of health and society in Britain since the 1960s,1 the purpose of which was to explore the changing pattern of relationships between the state and civil society, authors Alex Mold and Virginia Berridge describe how groups representing drug users have emerged in the last decade in response to ‘state-directed user involvement’, such as that described in the preceding article on the involvement of service users in a Dublin methadone programme.Mold and Berridge identify three categories of user groups in Britain – service users, activist users, and carers (principally parents and families of users).  

With regard to the first category, the authors outline how service users started to form groups as the state began taking a greater interest in the views of users. They found there were limits to how far the state was prepared to listen to the views of users: they use the term ‘tokenism’ to describe the nature of the engagement. A separate study of the role of service user groups in a sample of drug action teams (DATs) in England2 found that these groups were experiencing problems with long-term sustainability, owing to short-comings in their governance arrangements. The researchers concluded, ‘...groups established within an agency for the purpose of user involvement (UI) must have adequate resources to meet a well-defined objective. Management processes, leadership and lines of communication must be clear. User self-organizations ought to be invited and enabled to contribute to UI in a manner that promotes sustainability of the group and meets clearly defined objectives without compromising their self-defined purpose. The power imbalance that is inherent in UI in the drugs-treatment field must be explicitly addressed’(p. 96).
 
Mold and Berridge describe how, in parallel to the emergence of service user groups, drug users in Britain also began to organise in activist user groups. While interested in issues of service provision, these groups are also interested in broader social and political issues such as identity, rights, empowerment and drug policy. These groups have encountered difficulties including inability to access funding and the inability of a disparate membership to agree common positions.
 
The authors note that, at the international level, drug users have also become more vocal, participating in drug policy conferences and lobbying international policy bodies. Examples include the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD), which is supported by the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), and the European Network for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD),3 which lobbies the institutions of the European Union, and the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). However, such groups experience greater difficulties than other NGO groupings in obtaining accreditation.
 
Looking to the future, the authors suggest that the way in which citizens who also use drugs will contribute to the ongoing debate on policy in relation to psychoactive drugs will depend to a great extent on the direction that drug policy takes. They identify two opposing trends in Britain’s drug policy: one moving in favour of abstinence and a tougher stance on drug use, and one moving towards liberalisation and the establishment of drug use as a human ‘right’. The authors see the recent push towards abstinence as undermining the position of activist users who have sought to reclaim drug use as a legitimate practice and identity, while more coercion in drug treatment is seen as running counter to efforts to win greater choice and more rights for patients.
 
The authors conclude, ‘It is impossible to say which direction drug policy will move in, but it is certain that voluntary organisations, however reconstituted and reconfigured, will play a key part in whatever is to come’ (p. 178). 
 
1.Mold A and Berridge V (2010) Voluntary action and illegal drugs: health and society in Britain since the 1960s. Basingstoke, Hants: Palgrave Macmillan.
2. Patterson S, Weaver T and Crawford M (2010) Drug service user groups: only a partial solution to the problem of developing user involvement. Drugs: education, prevention and policy, 17(1): 84–97.
3. For more information on these international activist user organisations, visit www.inpud.net and www.encod.org 

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