From danger to risk: Categorising and valuing recreational heroin and cocaine use

Caiata Zufferey, Maria (2012) From danger to risk: Categorising and valuing recreational heroin and cocaine use. Health, Risk & Society, 14 (5). pp. 427-443. ISSN 1369-8575

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This article examines how former drug addicts who now feel that they can safely use heroin and cocaine recreationally distinguish between problematic and non-problematic drug-taking. This is a crucial question in current Western societies. After having been linked for most of the twentieth century to deviance and illness, the concept of drug use has recently undergone a process of extension and dilution. The threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘safe’ has become nebulous and susceptible to categorical revision. In consequence, there is some scope for individuals to define what is problematic or recreational. In this sense, illicit drug use has ceased to be a social scourge, and instead has become a personal risk. To explore the process of categorising recreational heroin/cocaine use, in-depth interviews were conducted in Switzerland with nine former drug addicts, now self-defined recreational users, using a grounded theory approach. Results showed that participants make sense of recreational drug-taking by stressing its positive meaning and pointing out its disciplined modalities of use. This process of making sense is a narrative, social and contingent construction in that it is supported by a discourse, built up in interactions with the social system, and is time- and space-dependent. Because of these features, we called this process of making sense ‘legitimation’. The results are discussed in relation to the conjoint socio-cognitive work of homogenisation/differentiation and valorisation that are central to risk categorisation, and this process is considered in relation to the legitimation of otherwise socially stigmatised behaviours.

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