Research, Policy, Practice - and Theory: The Role and Significance of Theoretical Thinking in the Formulation of Contemporary Drug Policy

Henry H. Brownstein, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, NORC at the University of Chicago

JRSA Forum. March 2013. Volume 31, Number 1.

In this era of evidence-based policy and practice, the relationship between research, policy and practice is widely acknowledged and embraced by many, if not most, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. But however important that relationship may be to the quality of policy and practice at any or all levels, informing policy and practice with knowledge gained from the findings and conclusions of research is not enough unless the role and significance of theory are just as widely acknowledged and embraced.

Contemporary Drug Policy, published by Routledge in January 2013, focuses on drugs in our everyday lives and the ways in which we as individuals and as communities of people respond to them. It views drugs as part of our normal personal and social experience and considers which drugs, when drugs, and how drugs are or can be harmful to us and which, when, and how they are or can be beneficial to us. It does not propose particular answers or solutions, nor does it advocate for any particular policies or practices. Rather, the book primarily proposes questions. It advocates eschewing unfounded assumptions and instead asking more questions, and calls for the use of science to continue to search for reasonable and compelling answers and, just as important, the questions raised by those answers.

While the explicit focus of Contemporary Drug Policy is on drugs and drug policy, more broadly the book is about the relationship between research and policy and how that relationship can be guided by the relationship in science between theory and research. Nothing in reality is ever as orderly or organized as we like to think it is, but theory can serve as a guide for the progression of science by offering conceptualizations that allow us to believe we can explain the inexplicable or know the unknowable. Our knowledge and understanding of anything are never complete, but through theory we can fill the gaps in our knowledge, and make sense of something in the world around us. We can use the explanations from theory to hypothesize about how things might fit together or what they might mean. We can pose new, important, and interesting questions for research toward new and better knowledge, understanding, and explanation—and thereby raise even more interesting questions.

Given the significance of theory in research, which particular theory is used to guide a scientific investigation makes a difference in whether and how that scientific investigation informs policy. In Contemporary Drug Policy I argue that the theories we have used throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century to guide our research and derive hypotheses to fill the gaps in our knowledge about drugs in society have perhaps not led us in the most productive policy direction. Consider drug policy as it relates to the legitimacy or legality of some drugs but not others, or particular drugs used or distributed in particular circumstances, or different categories of people using or distributing different drugs. Most of our research on the appropriate place for drugs in society has been guided by mainstream criminological theories rather than critical criminological theories. That has led us in a direction emphasizing control and management of drugs, drug users, and manufacturers, and distribution of drugs being classified as illegal or at least unacceptable for all or some people in all or some circumstances.

What is the difference? Simply stated, mainstream criminological theories are grounded in classical, neoclassical, and positivist thought, so begin with the philosophical assumption that human behavior is a consequence of independent social, cultural, and biological forces and go on to explain crime and justice in terms of phenomena and processes like social order and disorder, socialization, social control, and anomie and social strain. Critical criminological theories are grounded in a Marxist paradigm, so begin with the philosophical assumption that humans have the capacity to create themselves and others while being the product of their social, cultural, and physical world and go on to explain crime and justice in terms of the asymmetrical distribution in society not only of material resources but also things like power, status, and even personal and community well-being. Therefore, notions and conceptualizations based on critical criminological theories might lead us instead to studies about the possibility of policies that seek peace rather than war and might raise policy-relevant questions about things like the impact of policies that are grounded in values related to differences in class, ethnicity, race, and gender. This is not to suggest that critical criminological theories should replace mainstream criminological theory in guiding all the research that informs drug policy. But if we do follow the lead of critical theory it will raise new, different, and important questions that have not been raised or addressed before and just might move us a step closer to being able to make more informed, realistic, productive, nonhazardous, just, and humane drug policy.

Contemporary Drug Policy by Dr. Henry H. Brownstein focuses on the use of drugs in our lives and how we respond to them. Whereas drug policy typically centers on the problems of illicit drugs or licit drugs used in illicit ways or circumstances, the book instead considers the wide variety of substances we call drugs as a normal part of our personal and social experience and asks how and when drugs benefit us as well as how and when they are harmful.

Different from other books on drug policy, Contemporary Drug Policy does not offer answers or solutions. Rather it shows how critical criminological theories can lead scientific research in new directions supportive of policies that offer both solutions to problems that are found to be related to drugs and an appreciation for the benefits that drugs can bring to people and society.