Avoiding the stigma. A qualitative study of socially included women’s experiences of drug use and dealing, health services and the police in France

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The figure of drug user and dealer is stigmatized, linked to violence and illness. This is due to a reductionist discourse which implements othering processes generating scapegoat figures in the drug world. All drug users and sellers are assimilated with these spoiled identities in the media or in drug policies, while the reality is much more diverse. This article draws on relational sociology to focus on figures who are the antithesis of stereotypes: socially integrated women who use or sell drugs (WUSD) and are invisible to the health and control enforcement agencies. By seeking to avoid the stigma of the drug user’s and dealer’s identities, how do socially included WUSD distance themselves from the control enforcement agencies and health institutions? This qualitative research is based on 26 semi-structured interviews conducted with socially included WUSD in France. Participants were recruited using a snowball sampling strategy. It appears that the participants normalized their drug use and integrated it into their professional and personal lives. Some were drug user-dealers and had social supply practices, selling the drugs they used to their friends in order to finance their consumption. None of the participants have ever been in contact with harm reduction and addiction services, both because they do not identify with the users of these services, and because these services are not designed to support this population. With the police, the participants play gender games and show their social inclusion to protect themselves from arrest. In both cases, the stigmatized figure of the drug user and drug seller alienate the participants from the health systems and control enforcement agencies. One of the consequences of the othering process is the invisibility of those who do not want to be identified as “others” by the health and law enforcement services. Rethinking drug policy is essential to reach populations that may need information and support.



janvier 2021


International Journal of Drug Policy