Us and Them: The Role of Perceived Demographic of the User in Drug Legislation and Societal Attitudes

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Us and Them: The Role of Perceived Demographic of the User in Drug Legislation and Societal Attitudes


  1. How have illicit drugs become symbolic scapegoats in wider social conflicts? Discuss with reference to at least two countries.


Illicit drugs and illicit drug use have a particularly potent social and cultural symbolism, the impact and connotations of which varies according to the ideologies and social capital of the communities and individuals who come into direct or indirect contact with illicit drug use. As illicit drugs are often associated by legislators and the media with minority groups and counter culture attitudes and approaches to illicit drug use are often more representative of attitudes to the perceived user demographic than the dangers or societal impact of the drug use itself. This paper will examine the effect of prejudice against the perceived user demographic on both attitudes of the individual and approaches in legislation in Australia and the United States of America.


In examining Australian drug legislation and the effect of prejudice on legislation it is useful to examine the approach taken by the Howard government in response to an increase in heroin use and overdose in the late 1990s.

Howard era. In 1997 a recommendation was made following the outcomes of several reports and the third review of National Supply Reduction Strategy for Heroin and other Illicit Drugs that injecting room be rolled out in order to minimize the harm being caused by unsafe injecting practices amongst illicit drug users (Hughes, 2015). The recommendation, however, was quashed by the government in power, creating, for the first time in recent political history, a lack of bipartisan support for proposed drug legislation.


Despite recommendations for harm minimization strategies such as a a move towards decriminalizing illicit drug use (Brammer et al, 2002) the neoconservative LNP (Liberal Party) moved away from a community and welfare harm minimization approach towards law enforcement based “Tough on drugs” model (Brammer et al, 2002). This model saw not only a greater percentage of funding going towards law enforcement and seizures but it also deepened and validated the perceived view of the addict as criminal rather than victim. This was considered to be a populist move in drug legislation by the LNP as the party relied on the votes from a particular demographic; white, middle class, in established careers or occupations, with a predisposition towards economic conservatism. This supporter or voter demographic was seen to be at odds with a welfare based approach to illicit drug issues which typically effected younger, unemployed individuals, who, whilst they commonly came from white Anglo-Australian backgrounds, were also commonly of different ethnicities from the LNP supporter demographic (Brammer et al, 2002). For example the rate of illicit drug abuse, particularly heroin, is higher in Aboriginal communities. The Howard government’s push against reconciliation and other Indigenous rights and welfare issues is consistent with the populist attitude to drug legislation, an “us versus them” mentality that sees colonial racism and cultural and class divides being reinforced by law. The dispassionate approach to a serious health issue that does not effect the demographic of the political party in power, and the criminalization of that issue reflects more about the attitudes to race, class, age and poverty than it does about issues pertaining directly to the drug being considered.


While this series of event in recent decades in Australia shows clearly how popular prejudice, in particular racism, can be used effect drug legislation, in the United States of America a series of studies have shown that similar substance abuse problems are being intrinsically linked with certain ethnic groups. This stereotyping or profiling of users of opiates such as heroin allows white, middle class, right wing Americans to distance themselves from the problems of substance abuse, segregating effected communities into a kind of “underclass” (Schneider, 1998). Using the social problems associated with drug use as a thin veil for racial stereotyping, as the rate of incarceration and dependency are higher in Black and Latino communities (Schneider 1998), media portrayal and drug legislation related to illicit substances is able to reflect racism and prejudice at work in American society.


The link between the demographic of the user and the approach taken when addressing abuse is key to perpetuating this racial divide via legal and legislative means. There is evidence of differing approaches by law enforcement and the legal system when dealing with White offenders and Black or Latino offenders. There is a higher incidence of arrest, prosecution and jail time when the drug related offender is part of a minority group, where as offender from an Anglo-European background are more likely to be ushered through more clinical avenues of addressing the offence. As Schneider (1998) posits substance abuse is treated as an illness when encountered in the white community, but is treated as crime when perpetrated by certain minority groups.


Racism is not the only social conflict to be reflected by public opinion towards illicit substances. Homophobia is also reflected in the community condemnation of those with HIV/AIDS and those using injected illicit substances. The link between these three groups has been overemphasized in the right wing media and political sphere in America, leading to prejudice on a grass roots level. Research into the approaches to treatment and advocacy for patients who had AIDS, identified as homosexual or used injectable illicit drugs such as heroin found that a single factor of these three was enough to make medical students express a reluctance to treat the individual (O’Hare et al, 1996). The fear of HIV/AIDS, heroin use and homophobia have been so intrinsically linked in public opinion due to the high rate of HIV/AIDS in both users of heroin and gay communities, and the vast wealth of misinformation about how the infectious disease is communicated. The cultural and historical mistrust of the homosexual community in American society up until recent decades seems to have been transferred to heroin, meaning that homophobia as well as racism, is at play in emotive reactions to heroin legislation in the U.S.A.


Whilst there are many other social conflicts and community fears that are reflected in drug legislation not explored here, the themes of prejudicial practices and attitudes against a minority in the guise of addressing substance abuse and drug related crime a indicative of a widespread trend in Western societies. This is a populist, progressive movement away from using race or sexuality alone to condemn a group of people. The speed with which this change in thinking has occurred has left residual resentment between cultures and communities meaning that rather than wide spread cultural prejudice, more regressive political movements and groups express these historical grievances by picking out and pinpointing behaviours or “deviances” associated with that group, such as substance abuse, to continue marginalizing groups of people, without transgressing recently appropriated societal norms and anti-discriminatory legislation.


Illicit drugs have rapidly become the focal point for social conflicts between the “haves” and “have nots”. Drug legislation has become a method by which those in power are able to make decisions, which have real legal consequences for communities that are often under represented and unheard. This makes illicit drugs and our perception of them and the demographic of the user a very telling reflection of the subconscious and residual biases at play within our community.







  • Bammer, G., Hall, W., Hamilton, M., & Ali, R. (2002). Harm Minimization in a Prohibition Context—australia. The Annals Of The American Academy Of Political And Social Science, 582(2), 80-93.


  • Heisler, M. (2008). The politics of history in comparative perspective (pp. 149-165). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage.




  • Loxley, W., Toumbourou, J., & Stockwell, T. (2004). The Prevention of substance use, risk and harm in Australia. [Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.


  • O’Hare, T., Williams, C., & Ezoviski, A. (1996). Fear of AIDS and Homophobia: Implications for Direct Practice and Advocacy. Social Work, Vol. 41, No. 1, 51-58.


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