Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Nordic Alcohol and Drug Researchers’ Assembly
Article Type: Conference report From: Drugs and Alcohol Today, Volume 12, Issue 4
How do we define illegal substances and what is intoxication in the context of the western society today? How should we frame the harmful influence of substance abuse on others than the user? These were among the themes discussed at the 17th bi-annual Nordic Alcohol and Drug Researchers’ Assembly.
The Nordic Alcohol and Drug Researchers’ Assembly was held in Copenhagen, Denmark on 27-29 August, and assembled some 70 Nordic and international participants working with alcohol- and drug-related issues. In addition to the keynote talks, some 35 abstracts on a number of themes in the field of substance use were presented. The conference is organised every second year by the Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues.
Professor Geoffrey P. Hunt (Aarhus University, DK and Senior Scientist at Institute for Scientific Analysis, USA) discussed the changing motivations for becoming intoxicated, suggesting a transfer from the primary motive of pleasure from intoxication to a functional intoxication motivated by the need to fulfil the demands of society today. Following the scientific developments in the field of pharmaceutical technology, the concepts of illness and health have expanded, and partly merged. The availability of pharmaceuticals that allow regulation and control of basic physical functions, such as sleep and wakefulness as well as pharmaceuticals controlling the mental stability of the individual, have contributed to a more narrow conception of the healthy and well-functioning individual. A new category of so-called lifestyle pharmaceuticals appears to be emerging from the earlier conception of pharmaceuticals as treatment of illness alone. Hunt quoted an unknown source: “In the ’60s, people took LSD to make the world weird. Now the world is weird and people take Prozac to make it normal” (source unknown).
In the case of pharmaceuticals, there seems to be a grey zone as to how substances should be categorised. Substances that started out as licensed pharmaceuticals have been known to become redefined as illegal substances, as happened in the case of, e.g. amphetamine. A similar grey zone can be discovered in the case of culture connected intoxicants such as Khat (Catha Edulis). Dr Axel Klein (University of Kent, UK), keynote speaker at the conference, discussed the processes that led to Khat being classified as an illegal substance in many of the Western countries, and the consequences of its illegal status for trade, producers and users. Klein discussed the production benefits to the local African producers exporting Khat, describing Khat export as an example of successful African entrepreneurship that requires no financial support from the Western countries. In The Netherlands, Khat was classified as an illegal substance in 2012, chiefly based on reports of the health harms of Khat use (de Jonge and van der Veen, 2011), leaving UK as one of the few Western countries that continue to maintain a legal status for Khat. Klein discussed the motives for illegalising Khat in western countries, questioning the health harms caused by Khat use and drawing attention to the function of Khat use as a socially binding factor among Diaspora cultures. Klein pointed out that many western countries seem to reproduce a drug discourse without looking into both positive and negative effects of Khat on the user and society at large. An alternative approach to Khat would be classifying and regulating it as an intoxicant such as alcohol or tobacco.
Another thematic focus of the conference addressed the conception of harms caused by substance abuse. The theme was discussed from the view point of alcohol’s harms to others; an approach to studies on alcohol-related harm that has lately gained interest internationally. Approaching alcohol harms in the context of the drinker’s environment at large, rather than merely focusing on harms caused to the drinker is not a new approach. Alcohol’s harms to others was a key element of the temperance movement, but lost popularity during the later part of the twentieth century as the focus of drinking harms was centred on the drinker. As a result the substance abuse treatment systems developed during the later part of the twentieth century were mainly individual-oriented, focusing on treating medicinal and psychological problems of the drinker. Dr Anne-Marie Laslett (Centre for Alcohol Policy Research & Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, AU) discussed the rekindled interest in alcohol’s harms to others, suggesting the cost of alcohols’ harms to other as a key element in the recent interest in alcohols harms in a broader perspective. Mr Dag Rekve (WHO) pointed out that recent interest in studying alcohols’ harms to others may also be related to the fact that the means of controlling alcohol consumption and harms traditionally employed in welfare societies such as the Nordic countries are becoming increasingly difficult to carry out in the context of modern free-trade regulations on control, taxation and availability, etc. New motivations adapted to the altered prerequisites for policy-making may have added to the interest in measuring and pointing out the extent of the harms and costs of alcohol’s harms to others beyond the individual drinker.
As far as policy-making is concerned, both Khat and a focus on alcohols’ harms to others raise concern that a drug/alcohol discourse is employed in dealing with problems that extend beyond problematic substance use. In order to avoid this misconception it is important to be aware of the context of the drug or alcohol use studied, and maintaining a critical view on the origin and causes of problems. A drug-oriented discourse of Khat and social problems among Khat users runs the risk of overlooking structural social problems that often affect socially marginalised groups and groups with a lower socioeconomic status, such as immigrants. In a similar vein alcohols’ harms to others must be studied with caution in order to avoid stigmatising the drinke or blaming structural societal problems on alcohol use.
Nina Karlsson, MSocSc, Project managerNordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues, email@example.com