By Kate Seear, Suzanne Fraser, and Susan Boyd
While many experts consider major changes to legal approaches to drug use necessary, achieving such change has proven to be difficult. The political process is often seen as integral to bringing about change, largely due to orthodox understandings of the ‘nature’ of law, in which law is made by parliaments and capable of revision in only limited instances. In recent years, theorists such as Bruno Latour (2009, 2013), Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2015) and Serge Gutwirth (2015) have taken a more expansive view of the nature of law and its effects. According to these theorists, law also emerges from outside the political process, including through various practices such as those of professionals working within legal systems, and those engaged in resistance, navigation and subversion (Seear, 2020).
This article explores these processes using Karen Barad’s (2015) work on lightning. As we will explain, Barad presents lightning as a ‘queer’, non-linear, uncertain and indeterminate phenomenon, using it to understand causation in new ways. Along with Barad’s ideas, the article draws on interview data (N = 35) collected for two research projects in Canada. These interviews were conducted with senior drug use-related policy makers, service providers, advocates and lawyers based in British Columbia and Ontario, Canada. The interviews explore how key Canadian experts view drug law, debates about law and policy and whether they support reform. We also explore how these experts navigate the criminalisation of drugs and whether any insights can be drawn from their practices, including their attempts to navigate, subvert or change the law.
First we consider experts’ concern about current prohibitionist legal frameworks, finding it widespread, along with appetite for change. Second, we examine experts’ accounts of strategies used for working around or challenging punitive frameworks. We find that change, like lightning, is complicated and messy; simplistic approaches to changes are not always possible, and may in fact make matters worse. There are multiple, unpredictable effects in engaging and resisting law, and thus difficulty in tackling criminalisation in any clear and simple way. Practices and processes of responding to and resisting drug-use criminalisation can thus be understood in terms that reflect the ‘queer’, indeterminate, unpredictable and multidirectional nature of Barad’s lightning. In concluding, we note that this way of understanding legal processes and resistance has implications for the future of Canadian drug policy, including debates about whether it is possible to work within a framework of overarching criminalisation.
This article was part of a Special Issue in the International Journal of Drug Policy. Read the full Special Issue here.