Meth, fear and government: a case study of political pressure and public policy-making in British Columbia.



Carter, Connie I.

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Between 2003 and 2007, concerns about the illegal drug crystal methamphetamine (meth) increased dramatically in British Columbia despite research data that indicated usage rates were low among the general youth and adult populations. This dissertation draws on the insights of social constructionist theories that challenge the assumption that social problems are the natural outcome of ‘society’s ills,’ and explores the claims-making activities including public policy, that construct a ‘social problem’ like meth. This project draws on semi-structured interviews with members of citizen groups, policy-makers in the B.C. provincial government, representatives from health authorities and community-based services. It also includes textual analysis of key public policy and other documents. My analysis explores the narratives of illicit drug use that emerged from this data. The findings indicate that public policy officials and citizen groups held different perspectives about what kind of problem meth posed, as well as about the appropriate programs and policies government should use to respond to this drug. To problematize meth, citizen group members drew on long-standing emotionally driven claims informed by law enforcement and media, to shape meth as a uniquely addictive and dangerous agent with the potential to ensnare innocent victims from all walks of life. Public policy officials, on the other hand, insisted that governmental responses to meth must be similar to other prohibited substances, and should be evidence-based to avoid the influence of politics. These evidence-based responses, however, were shaped by values-based frameworks emerging from the marriage between neo-liberal ideas about governing and what Foucault calls ‘governmentality’. The twin pressures of public outrage, and this marriage of ideologies, shaped a hybrid of governmental approaches to the meth ‘problem’ that illustrated the complex and contradictory forces at work inside state institutions and between state institutions and non-governmental actors. Citizen groups pressured government using claims that bypassed scientific ‘evidence’ about drug use, in favour of frightening assertions about the need to protect children from the supposedly uniquely dangerous effects of this drug. These claims were used to gain support from politicians, resulting in new funding and program initiatives such as the Crystal Meth Secretariat that took as axiomatic a criminalized approach to drug use that excluded harm reduction measures. These claims depended upon and highlighted law enforcement and media based claims about meth and illicit drug use. But in neither case did official government responses, or crystal meth groups scrutinize or challenge the health and social inequities that shape illicit drug use. Rather both governmental and citizen group responses focused on change at the individual level eschewing sociological insights about the social conditions that shape illicit drug use and its harms.



drug policy, methamphetamine, crystal meth, British Columbia, critical policy analysis, public policy, sociology, social problems