Psychoactive Substances and the English Language: “Drugs,” Discourses, and Public Policy

This article undertakes a historical ontology of psychoactive substances, or, in other words, an exploration of the philosophical and political nature of modern categories for plants and chemicals that alter consciousness. Drawing on the ideas of Michel Foucault and Ian Hacking and using the method of critical discourse analysis, I elucidate three distinct contemporary meanings of the English word “drug.” Further, I demonstrate how these meanings of “drug” map onto a modern stereotypology of psychoactive substances that informs public discourses and sustains an ideological drug war paradigm. I trace this paradigm through the generative metaphors of drugs as “malevolent agents” and “pathogens” in modern public discourses, and explore how these metaphors frame and support policy responses within the international drug control regime that are inconsistent with human rights. In so doing, I argue that the language we use to talk and think about “drugs” may not be ideal for crafting sound public policy.


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