And a drug researcher was born

This post is also available in: Português (Portuguese (Brazil))

Have you already asked yourself why did you chose the work you do? What moves you out of bed to work for 8-plus hours a day, focusing on a certain subject for perhaps many years? I did.

When you work in the field of drug policies and harm reduction, you usually carry a wish for making the world a better place. Above all, a better place for people who use drugs and those who are close to them. That was not different in my case.

When I was finishing my under-graduation in Psychology in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001, I started to work for a Non-Governmental Organization doing permanent education for health outreach workers. Our task was to guide them on how to approach drug users. Back then I got to know ‘harm reduction’: an approach which does not require from drug users to become abstinent or to stop using drugs in order to start care. Harm reduction was understood as an alternative to the abstinence-only approach. The latter was predominant in health care practices at that time, but criticized for keeping away from welfare many users who did not want or could not stop using drugs. A national drug policy shift towards harm reduction, in 2003, led the Brazilian government to invest in training health care workers on the new approach. And there I was.

In those trainings, I could feel the struggle of many workers to accept and/or put harm reduction into practice. Disagreements on what to do, misunderstandings, prejudicial behaviour towards users and towards a harm reduction approach were frequent. If/when this step was overcome, more structural constraints as lack of resources and political support had an important role in hindering or enhancing the adoption of harm reduction as a goal. Some years later, when I worked as a psychologist in a public clinic for drug addiction, I experienced myself having colleagues who would refrain from adopting harm reduction, even though it was part of the rules and regulations guiding our work. While I was promoting strategies for reducing harms in the groups and in individual appointments with drug users, some of my colleagues would reinforce complete abstinence in their activities. Many times, we were assisting the same users. Since each professional was pursuing and communicating to users a different type of goal, we all experienced difficulties in developing coherence in our work.

I elaborated an MA research project to investigate the work of outreach workers approaching drug users in Porto Alegre and metropolitan region. The university offered me a grant to pursue this project for 2 years. My MA research confirmed these first perceptions and brought into light new themes. Workers adopting a harm reduction approach reported difficulties in collaborating with social and health workers who were abstinence-only driven. They, also, perceived police workers’ activities of displacing drug users from public areas and seizing drug use equipment –such as syringes which were given by harm reduction programs -, as hindering their tasks. At this point, one thing was clear: even though policy statements were certainly a trigger for practitioners in how to organize activities, alone these statements were not enough to change workers’ practices towards harm reduction.

All these puzzling experiences came together when I built a research proposal for my PhD study. How do workers in the drug field choose for different approaches on how to deal with drug users? How do they decide whether and with whom to collaborate? And how come national policy statements can be, sometimes, totally ignored by street-level workers? Interestingly enough, I was granted with a PhD vacancy and a NUFFIC scholarship to study these questions in the Netherlands, the country where harm reduction approach was born! At that point, for harm reduction supporters, the Dutch harm reduction strategy was seen as an example to be followed, the golden pot at the end of the rainbow that all wanted to have. When compared to Dutch national policy statements, the Brazilian ones seemed to be far behind. Which lessons could Brazilians learn from the Dutch way? How would harm reduction be brought into practice at the street level in the Netherlands? I expected to see great differences in terms of how street-level workers behave, think, and decide on what to do with drug users on a daily basis.

Along the study, however, the colours of the Dutch rainbow showed somehow different nuances, and the golden pot lost a bit of its shine. Many other questions regarding how street-level workers take daily decisions arouse, and comparing ideas and experiences of street-level workers across the Atlantic was definitely one of the most fun and challenging tasks I had so far in my academic career. Through the experiences of the street level workers participating in this research, I revisited the hardness and the beauty of daily negotiating of goals, meanings and decisions. Through a grounded theory approach, new nuances were brought to complement and in some cases contradict the (street level bureaucracy) theories I have worked with.

At the end of 2015, I started a consultancy job that allowed me to dig further into a variety of actors and experiences related to drug policies. Working for Mainline, I got the chance to travel from the high ranking officials of UNODC and governmental bodies to the narrow alleys of slums and the people using a variety of drugs in countries such as Indonesia and South Africa. Collecting data, sharing experiences, and trying to comprehend the development of policies in various contexts enlarged my portfolio on national and international drug policy making.

The strength of my research so far has been careful attention to different perspectives and actors in drug policies, reaching contextually based interpretations. Now, in 2017, I am entering more deeply into the historical background of different discourses in drug policy. Through post-doctoral research at Utrecht University, I will be looking at how discourses around Europe have been shifting since the Second World War. How do European Union neighbours have been interpreting Dutch positions around drugs?

So far, my trajectory as a drug researcher has been a bottom-up one.

Starting as an outreach worker, I moved into studying how people who use(d) drugs advised others to reduce their harms, went up another level to look into social, health and law enforcement workers approaching people who use drugs, and ended up investigating the high level of drug policy making. Literally from the streets and the slums to the paper level and the fancy meeting rooms.

I realized that even though I remained in the same field, I’ve been looking at it from different perspectives. Each discipline – history, psychology, public policies, development studies – has unique contributions to the understanding of drug use and drug trade. The novelty of discovering, every day, a bit more about each side of this topic is what moves me to the computer, the books and the people involved with (the study of) drugs. Acquiring a more holistic understanding of drug use is my aim, and step by step I’m getting there.

And you, how did you start your journey towards the work you do, and what keeps you going?

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