How can public support be fostered for controversial, but evidence-based, drug policies that will improve outcomes for stigmatised and marginalised groups?
The UK is currently facing some of the highest levels of deaths related to controlled drug use on record. People who use drugs (PWUD) also face other health and social harms related to their drug use, and because of the ways in which society chooses to respond to their drug use. We know that there are interventions and policies that might reduce some of these harms, but despite some promising evidence, these responses may not be implemented, or available to enough people to have an impact. There are many reasons for this, and not all are easy to resolve.
Drug policy and other public health scientists have argued that whilst important, public contribution to policy development and preferences can sometime be tokenistic, and valued only when it is in accordance with the broader political aims of government. Some important public health focused drug policies supported by health professionals and academics can also seem controversial and counter-intuitive to the public, and governments have also used this apparent lack of public support to justify inaction. However, policies that do have public interest and support, and lead to advocacy campaigns are sometimes quickly acted on. A good contrast here is the decision by the UK government to change the law to allow prescription of cannabis-based medicinal products in 2018, but ongoing resistance to change the law to permit the establishment of medically supervised drug consumption facilities in Scotland.
Some of the reasons why the public may not support particular actions include a lack of familiarity with the aims and evidence underpinning a particular approach, or public attitudes towards PWUD. Public stigma is an important source of social exclusion and determines which policies and practices receive public support. Stigma can also affect the likelihood of PWUD to seek support, and undermine the benefits of treatment, and so this is important to address. We also know that some health and social care professionals can have stigmatising attitudes towards PWUD, and this can affect the level and quality of care provided, and may indirectly affect public opinion. Despite recognition of the importance of stigma on drug-related health and social outcomes, little research has examined techniques that might lead to more inclusive and less stigmatising attitudes towards PWUD. Similarly, although there has been good work in other health fields (e.g. alcohol, tobacco, HIV), there is a lack of work that has examined how public support for controversial, but evidence-based responses to illicit drug use can be fostered.
We would like to work with a student who is committed to developing a high-quality programme of PhD research that responds to some of these important challenges. The student should generate the research ideas, but based on some of the work we have already done, areas of investigation might include:
- How framing of a) drug issues in public discourse (including the media), b) PWUD, and c) responses to drug use can affect public attitudes towards PWUD and public support for controversial policies.
- How the different ways in which evidence for controversial drug policies is presented can affect public support
- The role of mass media in shaping attitudes towards PWUD. In particular in the development of understanding media responses to drug-related ‘problems’, or in the development of evidence-based resources and training for journalists and other media producers to support their reporting.
This is an exciting and important area of work, with direct relevance to practice and policy. This is likely to be multidisciplinary research, and also presents opportunities to collaborate with professionals and partners outside of University settings. It is likely to appeal to students from a broad range of disciplines, including, but not limited to public health, psychology, sociology, criminology, health sciences, journalism, and marketing/communications. It is important that the prospective student shares our values of respect towards PWUD, and shares our commitment to undertaking research that seeks to support marginalised and stigmatised groups and to reduce health and social inequalities.