Monday, June 29, 2009

Shooting Up Together: An Exploration into Boston's Heroin Subculture

This is a long post, I admit, but it's hard to condense a year long project!

My interest in heroin addiction began when I spent a summer working at a recovery program in Boston. Given that users and dealers traffick and shoot up in open drug scenes, I wanted to understand their everyday experiences and know why they put themselves at risk of arrest and contracting disease. Heroin addiction can be related to Bourdieu’s habitus theory as a “durable and transposable disposition that develops in response to internal and external conditions.” By conducting fieldwork, I gained temporary access to communities of heroin users and former heroin users. Their detailed life histories provided a plethora of background information and context necessary to comprehend Boston’s heroin problem. I did not use tapes, camcorders or cameras in an effort not to draw attention to myself or my interviewees. I interviewed people in other peoples’ houses, street corners, abandoned buildings and popular locations such as Starbucks. Perhaps I could uncover (or expand) on a dimension of addiction that only stays behind closed doors. My goal was also to converse with users in their own environments and because my objectives were such, my perceived risks were much lower. I believe that this is also how users make sense of their lives and desire to use heroin. Because their objective is to get high and avoid withdrawal, their perceived danger is much lower than someone who does not use.

Historical criminalization of heroin use has led to public health and social problems that we presently have. In my thesis, I mention that discrepancies in opiate use exist where the terminally ill are medically treated with opiates for their pain and heroin users are disregarded. Foucault would attribute the difference to the link between knowledge and power. The historical medicalization of other opiates both “assumed the authority of truth and has the power to make itself true.” It was not carried out by one central organization, but the connection of government and law enforcement has collectively exercised and facilitated that power. The result is another Foucaultian idea, of bio-power by which “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques has led to the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations”. This is exactly the site where addiction is demoralized and juxtaposed with an ideal clean and healthy body. An anthropological understanding, unlike others, of heroin addiction enables and fosters broader conversation. Not only can we discuss addiction in American society, but also create cross-cultural communication in order to understand other frameworks and power structures that exist within this topic. We can talk about heroin and its biological elements or its political economy, but it is much harder to live among users and completely understand what motivated their daily existence.

After studying abroad in Switzerland and learning about their health care system in relation heroin addiction, I believe that increased dialogue would only help users. Changing treatment strategies from predominant law enforcement to predominant medical care does not mean legalizing heroin. Instead, it maintains the health and safety of heroin users in a harm reductive realm. I’ve found that not all heroin users (in particular injection drug users) want to stop using and will attempt to procure it by any means when experiencing withdrawal. Therefore, mandatory cessation only increases the chance of relapse and lowers users perceptions of self. Increased understanding and awareness around heroin addiction could potentially decrease incidence and increase safety for society as a whole.

- Posted By Kendall LaSane, '09

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