Vol. 39 Issue 1 March 2015: Medicalizing Heroin

In addition to our From the Archive series, where we highlight past articles in the journal’s history, the CMP blog features selected previews of our latest issue. This week, we again take a sneak peek into an article from the March issue: the first installment of 2015’s Volume 39 of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry.


Heroin: From Drug to Ambivalent Medicine

On the Introduction of Medically Prescribed Heroin and the Emergence of a New Space for Treatment

Birgitte Schepelern Johansen • Katrine Schepelern Johansen. Pages 75-91. Link to article: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-014-9406-7

This article examines the reintroduction of heroin as a medicine, as opposed to illicit drug, in the treatment of substance abuse patients. Unlike existing research on this topic, the authors here emphasize the exchanges between the users, the staff, and the material space of the implementation of heroin: the built and organizational environments of the clinic, rather than just the actors in this space alone.

Heroin exists in a complicated place in these clinics: it is (paradoxically) utilized to minimize addiction to it. Rather than marginalizing the drug, this process of managed heroin prescription lends the drug a central place in the lives of users and staff, albeit a place that ambivalently lies between drug use as pleasure and drug injection as a form of medicalized control.

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When considering the rooms in the clinic where the staff injects heroin into clients, the authors note that the space is strictly regulated. Staff observe incoming clients, while those who carry out injections do not permit the patients from selecting where the drug is administered. Likewise, this clinical space is not used for socializing: clients don’t casually talk while waiting, and typically depart this area and linger in the facility’s more casual cafe after receiving their injection. The clinical space removes the use of heroin from the context of pleasure-seeking, and assumes control for the drug’s use. Although the substance is the same, heroin users’ experiences of the drug in recreational settings is deliberately set apart from its use in the clinic.

Yet distinguishing the clinical space where heroin is injected, while no doubt increasing medicalized control over the substance, also complicates the notion of the drug as unquestionably destructive. Clients move into a social, casual environment in the cafe after initial injection. Even the clinical space itself underscores the intimacy of intravenous drug use, as staff and clients engage one-on-one during the injections. The staff similarly struggle with the complex nature of heroin as an illegal drug, made most evident by the strict safeguarding of the location where heroin is stored.

Although the medicalization of heroin abuse may serve to diminish the criminal stigma surrounding use of the drug, medical models of treatment remain entangled in older ideas of substance illegality, criminality, and the stringent enforcement of substance abuse policies. Conversely, the clinical treatment space and its organization is arranged in such a way that muddies the boundary between pleasure and treatment. The authors thereby illustrate the complexity of moving towards a medical model of heroin treatment, and how notions of control evolve with the changing landscape of substance abuse policy.

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One thought on “Vol. 39 Issue 1 March 2015: Medicalizing Heroin

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #44 | Whewell's Ghost

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