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Changing Lives, Changing Drug Journeys:
Drug Taking Decisions from Adolescence to Adulthood

Changing Lives, Changing Drug JourneysAuthor: Lisa Williams
Publisher: London; New York: Routledge, 2012. 208p.
Reviewer: Adrian Barton | January 2013

‘Drug taking’. It is an evocative phrase which provides any number of different scenarios and responses depending on a selection of variables: your age, your previous experiences, where you are now in your life cycle, your political persuasion and so on and so on. ‘Drug taking’ can be viewed simultaneously as exciting, dangerous, foolhardy, hip and trendy, for someone else, for sad losers or just the right thing for me right now. I could go on with these lists, but if I were to choose a phrase which summarised the message this opening paragraph is trying to convey, it is that for me the study of drugs, and probably more importantly drug users, is a complex and fascinating area. This is why a growing number of academics from a variety of fields of interest choose to study those that use substances, as well as the policies governments put in place in attempts to reduce and limit drug taking.

Because of this on-going fascination there are a large number of books and articles related to the topic, and arguably most publications either adopt the ‘why do they do it?’ approach or the ‘what can we do about it?’ stance. Some seek to combine the two but almost inevitably lean toward one or the other of those basic questions. This book, by Dr. Lisa Williams, falls into the former camp. This is unsurprising given the professional and academic affiliation and previous work of the author. Lisa Williams is one of a group of researchers working out of the North West of England ( I will refer to them from here on in as ‘the Manchester group’) who collectively have produced some interesting and informative, and in one case I would suggest seminal (Parker, et. al., 1998), work on adolescence, drug taking and drug taking journeys. Lisa Williams has been working with and around this group since 1999, and her work in this volume is very much a continuation of what has gone before. Indeed, it appears to be based on her doctoral thesis -- and readers should note that it has the feel of a PhD-based publication in both the opening and closing sections of the work.

In terms of the subject matter covered, Dr. Williams recognises that this particular volume is an area of research and study that has given rise to a number of previous sets of work when she says her purpose is to ‘grapple with the age-old debate of…structure versus agency’ and then pre-warns the reader that her conclusions will be that drug taking decisions are ‘framed within cultural and structural circumstances or locations’ (Williams, 2013: 14). Thus, readers who are familiar with the Manchester group’s work have a clear idea of what is about to follow. Conversely, those that are not familiar will be introduced to many of the concepts and findings that have informed and influenced this group of researchers. Either way, I find that no bad thing.

The book follows a neat and logical sequence as to be expected from a PhD based piece of work. The introduction deals mainly with the methodology and also acts as an explanation and justification of the adoption of a qualitative approach to the data collection. This is coupled with a brief look at our historical theorizing about drug taking. Again, the methodology will be familiar to those who have followed the work of the Manchester group over the past couple of decades, but it is worth the re-cap and serves to remind the reader of the core concerns of both this work and the larger body of work which Lisa William’s book represents. Following this, there is a chapter that locates the work within a theoretical framework comprised largely of what is known as ‘risk’ and ‘agency.’ She applies this framework to a more contemporary set of work looking at culture, structure and agency in which she refers to the work of some of her colleagues and others. It is a well written and thoughtful chapter that manages to locate the work within an established but perhaps evolving theoretical framework.

For me, it is the next four chapters which make the book come alive. Here, the author allows the drug users to speak for themselves and thus turn abstract theory into life. We get to understand how they come to terms with and often justify ‘risk’; we can see the impact of structure; we can understand and feel the part agency played in their decision making. At the same time, we get to see that drug takers, desisters and abstainers are all unique. This moves us away from the favoured ‘one size fits all’ approach that is coming to dominate drug policy discussions.

Voices from the field can be very powerful and to some extent are often missing from the increasing public face of drug debates. This makes this work by Williams especially timely, because as I write this both Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational cannabis use with speculation that California will follow. It remains to be seen what the impact will be -- including in Europe -- but it is almost certain that the debate will be led and dominated by politicians and ‘experts,’ but not lay voices. The absence of the voices of the users is and will continue to be an important omission from these debates, especially when we get to hear the experiences and thoughts of the recreational user as we do in this book. The latter view can be lost in drug debates where the dialogues that dominate are often concerned with the (some would argue atypical) risks posed and faced by hard-end problematic users.

Running against this trend to highlight problematic use, the author shows that for some, drug use is a pleasurable experience and is simply part of a raft of experiences that individuals have in the transition from ‘youth’ to full adulthood. Indeed, we know that the majority of drug users suffer very little harm from their use. Most go on to lead stable and settled lives, and the more integrated they become in what we could call adult mainstream society the further away from drug use they move. Williams correctly points out that for a growing few, the age of desistance may be prolonged beyond their 20s and in some cases on into their 40s and beyond. However, ‘full adulthood’ often leads to desistance for reasons that are fully and carefully explored in this work. The impact full adulthood has on some users is best encapsulated by this quote from an ex-cannabis smoker:
‘…with the kids and that, I mean I don’t want to set a bad example for them and I wouldn’t want anyone round here who was on drugs…I just don’t tolerate it for the kids really.’ (Williams 2013: 106)

In essence this demonstrates that for this former user at least, cannabis use was a youthful pastime that has no place in his adult life. This is a powerful policy message that is often ignored in the polarised ‘good versus evil’ type debates which changes in drug policy seem to generate. Put simply, the greatest ‘risk’ most users face is that of a criminal record for what is essentially a youthful, culturally embedded pastime. If they can successfully negotiate that risk, it appears that the majority of users simply ‘grow out of it’ as their lives and their culture changes alongside them.
With respect to the two types of drug publication: ‘why do they do it?’ or ‘what can we do about it,’ I noted earlier that texts often seek to combine the two at some stage. This volume is no different. The final section of the last chapter reflects on current British drug policy and notes, predictably, that it is lacking both nuance and understanding. Williams laments the absence of user voices and experience in the noise of debate. She also points out, correctly in my opinion, that official policy and advice homogenises drug users to the detriment of any useful advice they may have to offer, leaving fledgling users dependent on their friends for advice and direction. As an aside, such homogenisation also serves no real value in promoting an informed public debate and spreading the message that drug takers are a complex and diverse set of people who should be at the top of all our agendas.

In sum, this is an interesting book that will appeal to students of drug policy. There is, of course, a bias toward the UK drug scene – in fact there is a bias to a particular region of the UK – but nevertheless many of the messages and quotes that come from the qualitative data will resonate with drug users across the western world. Does it tell us anything new? Not really! It is a well written, well researched addition to a body of knowledge that has emerged from this particular ‘stable’ of substance use researchers. As such, it chimes with much of the work that has gone before it, and it demonstrates the same level of informed and informing commentary on aspects of British drug culture. For me that is enough. The book’s strength is that it gives a voice to the most common but often most forgotten type of user: the recreational user whose use is pleasurable, social and largely a product of a complex mix of agency, structure and culture. It is regrettable that those voices are not more often heard in the cacophony of noise currently surrounding public debates on drug use in the twenty first century.

Parker, H., Aldridge, J. & Measham, F. (1998) Illegal leisure: the normalization of adolescent recreational drug use. Routledge: London.

Dr. Adrian Barton is an associate professor in public policy and management at Plymouth University, United Kingdom

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