“Psychoactive substances and the English language: 'Drugs,' discourses, and public policy”.
Contemporary Drug Problems. 2012;393:461-492.
This paper examines a high school drug education text using critical discourse analysis (CDA) to discern its underlying ideological commitments and political dispositions. I begin with an overview of CDA and why it is a suitable methodology for my work, and then provide a brief history of drug education in North America. Next, I consider some of the primary discursive features of a Canadian eighth-grade drug education teacher’s manual called Making Decisions. I continue with a focused interrogation of a student ‘fact sheet’ on hallucinogens, and conclude with some educational implications of my research. Paying careful attention to features such as genre, syntax, interdiscursivity, and lexicalization, I question core assumptions made by both a drug education text and the broader medical, public health, legal and drug policy discourses from which it draws.
The non-medical use of psychoactive substances in today’s world is a significant health, social, political, and educational issue. Illegal drugs their production, distribution, and use feature in news and popular culture media stories associating them with disease, social problems, violence, and organized crime. Young people, in particular, are invoked as vulnerable to the harms of drugs. Drug education is thus championed as an important aspect of schooling, to persuade youth to ‘just say no’ and inculcate an ethic of being ‘drug-free’. However, contemporary drug education is often bound up in conventional discourses that purport to convey self-evident truths about drugs embedded in prohibitionist policy responses to them. While seemingly neutral and transparent, the language of drug education often conveys vested cultural, ideological and political interests that sustain the orthodoxies of the global war on drugs. This may be troubling for parents, educators and policy-makers who seek to base education on principles such as public health and social justice, which may not accord with dominant bellicose ideologies about drugs.
In this paper, I critically examine how drugs and drug use are positioned through discourse in the text of a drug education learning resource for junior high schools in British Columbia, Canada. The text I analyze is from Making decisions grade 8: A teacher’s manual for substance abuse prevention (Mangham, 2003), a resource for teachers to use in planning and delivering drug education for eighth-grade students (henceforth simply Making decisions). In the first section of this paper, I describe critical discourse analysis (CDA) and its application for this study. Next, I provide an overview of the social and historical context of drug education in North America. In the third and fourth sections, I analyze aspects of the entire Making decisions manual and then focus particularly on a hallucinogens 'fact sheet'. Finally, I conclude with some educational implications of my work.