Picture a drug user. What image comes to mind? “Most people imagine someone using some sort of street drug,” says UW Tacoma Associate Professor Ingrid Walker. Walker is the author of the new book High: Drugs, Desire and a Nation of Users, published by University of Washington Press. In the book, Walker explores US drug policy and the norms around both illegal and legal substances.
A key argument in Walker’s book is that a lot of us use drugs but that’s probably not the image we thought of when prompted. “Most of us self-medicate all day long to manage our moods whether it’s with prescription drugs, caffeine or alcohol,” she said.
In High Walker explores the disconnect between so-called “good drugs” and “bad drugs.” What she found is the relationship is often blurry. “For most of us when we say drugs we mean illicit drugs because prescription means something else,” said Walker. “Methamphetamine is bad, but Adderall is good even though they’re both amphetamines.”
Walker describes herself as ambivalent about drugs. However, she’s concerned about the way drugs are presented by both media and the government. “A drug isn’t bad or good, it’s an inert substance,” she said. “We have put these arbitrary moral labels on them that are wrong.”
Walker points out that a vast majority of people who use psychoactive drugs—those that affect the mind or behavior—are doing so in a controlled manner and are not addicted. “On average only about 10% of people who use a substance will get addicted,” she said.
The national conversation about drugs has largely focused on the harm done by the abuse of illicit substances. Walker believes there is a different way to approach the subject. “Addiction is a symptom, not a cause but we talk about it as a cause,” she said. “No one starts out saying ‘I’m going to drink myself silly to the point where I have to drink a fifth of bourbon every night.’ People start down that road either for pleasure but more often because they’re in pain.”
Missing from the narrative is an understanding of why people continue down the path of addiction. Is it due to something biological like brain chemistry or are other factors at play? “Your resources and your social context have a lot to do with abuse and addiction,” said Walker. “A lot of people will get in trouble, will have periods of abuse with a drug but they self-resolve if they have a job worth keeping, a family, a community.”
Walker’s interest in this subject stems from an advertisement she saw during halftime of the 2002 Super Bowl. “This public service announcement came on and it said if you used drugs then you support terrorism,” she said. “Keep in mind this was a few months after 9/11. I thought these claims were nonsense and I wanted to investigate.”
Walker went “down the rabbit hole.” She discovered the Office of National Drug Control Policy created the ad. “That one spot cost over a million dollars,” said Walker. The PSA was part of a larger anti-drug campaign geared toward young people. “This project was greenlighted despite endless studies that show these kinds of scare tactics don’t work,” she said.
During the past 15 years Walker has written numerous scholarly articles about drug use in the United States. She’s also given a Tedx Talk on the subject. High is the culmination of her research. “My book has zero answers but it has a lot of data,” she said. “I’m asking questions about why we believe certain things and presenting evidence that challenges our perceptions.”
One big question Walker posits is: why do we criminalize the use of some drugs while pushing the use of others. She mentions the fact that illicit drugs like heroin were once widely used in medicine. Walker also notes the prohibitions on advertising for prescription drugs were lifted around the same time the anti-drug youth campaign was launched. “It seems like an arbitrary split to criminalize meth but then put kids on stimulants like Ritalin,” she said.
Walker is a cultural studies scholar. “We study power—who has it, who doesn’t, why that is and how power affects people through systems,” she said. The drug war that began in 1971 and escalated during the Reagan administration was, according to Walker, about power. She points to the disproportionate number of people of color who are in prison for drug related offenses. “The idea was to buffer white middle-class America from the ‘other’ under the guise of ‘these are dangerous drug dealers.’ Some of that is true, but most of it isn’t,” said Walker.
Included in the book are first-person narratives from drug users. “I thought it was important to include different viewpoints,” said Walker. “I want to present the reader with a range of opinions and experiences on this subject.” Ultimately, Walker hopes her book will get people thinking. “I don’t expect you to agree with me,” she said. “I want you to question your assumptions.”
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or email@example.com