Critical drug scholarship as an otherwise to rights

GLaD program lead Kate Seear and project officer Sean Mulcahy recently presented a paper at the After Rights? Politics, Ethics and Aesthetics Workshop. Their presentation, titled ‘Forging new habits: Critical drug scholarship as an otherwise to rights’ analysed the limitations of rights processes surrounding drug policy, and considered opportunities for change via the notion of ‘habit’.

Australia has four jurisdictions (being the states of Queensland and Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and the Commonwealth), which have specific human rights laws (or ‘charters’). These laws require executives and parliaments to subject every new proposed law, of any kind, to what is known as ‘human rights scrutiny’. These deliberative processes are important practices worthy of analysis as they shed light on how the human rights of people who use drugs are understood, and on what bases rights might be thought to be justifiably limitable.

The presentation examined these human rightsscrutiny processes as they applied to drug policy and found that habits of thought and practice were central to how these processes were approached. The paper argues that legal actors’ habits repeatedly forge connections between substances and problematic social phenomena such as violence, whilst obscuring or downplaying the role of other forces such as gender. This is expressed both in the human rights scrutiny documentation itself – which habitually make claims about the agency of substances and their apparently casual role in various social problems – but also in the authors’ interviews with key stakeholders involved in these human rights scrutinyprocesses, including former and current members of parliament, their staff, and other experts involved in scrutiny processes who might be termed the habitués of parliamentary human rights scrutiny.

The paper draws on critical alcohol and other drug scholarship and critical legal scholarship to explore the significance of these habits and processes of repetition. It argues, following Eve Sedgwick, that habit is repetitive but not rigid, and therefore open to rupture. In other words, the possibility for change lies within such habits.

When asking stakeholders to reflect on how when they picture or imagine the targets of alcohol or other drug laws, habits of thought and practice were detected in the way stereotypical approaches to people who use drugs were repeated, largely uncritically, by many participants. These habits appear to be socially imbued and reproduced normative, Western, liberal, discursive, masculine ideals about proper ways of being human. The habits of thought and practice described here are not the only ones, however. Several participants described various traditions, conventions or customs of practice, or habits, regarding rights deliberations, in which they rely on emotions, personal experiences or other factors to determine both whether rights may be limited and whether such limitations are justifiable. These speculative habits and modes of thought are repeated, with personal anecdotes sometimes shared with other parliamentarians and committee members to aid in rights deliberations. Such practices become the foundation for how drugs are understood to work and how the rights of people who use drugs are formulated.

These findings suggest, on the face of it, little hope for human rights within the context of drug policy. But this reading overlooks the ontological function of habit, including the inherent and imminent possibilities for change that habit entails. These possibilities were reflected in the accounts of some participants in the interviews conducted. For instance, some described the way that rights deliberations could change in important new ways based on modifications to the structure of scrutiny committees within parliaments, the personal whims of attitudes of committee chairs, and the degree of interest in or expertise regarding human rights that individual parliamentarians had. Perhaps most importantly, ideas about drugs were changing, and could be changed, with some conceiving of drugs as potentially valuable, pleasurable or therapeutic.

The paper concluded that new habits of thought and practice when it comes to rights deliberations have the potential to transform not only how drugs are understood and regulated, but also how core human rights logics and understandings of the human are formulated.