Researcher takes a fresh look at illicit drug use

Ingrid Walker wants to change the way you think about drugs. Not cold medications and aspirin, though. Instead, she’s referring to what most people consider illicit drugs and the way media and the government frame our perceptions about them. And the people who use them.

“There’s so much misinformation and uninformed conversation about illicit drugs. Just the way we talk about the opiate crisis is maddening to me,” says the UW Tacoma associate professor of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

Part of the problem is that we tend to view drugs as “good” or “bad,” Walker says in her recently released book “High: Drugs, Desire and a Nation of Users.” For example, drugs like alcohol and marijuana are “good” because the general population considers them acceptable. It’s even OK for a doctor to prescribe Ritalin for Attention Deficit Disorder, but it’s not OK to use “bad” drugs like methamphetamines, even though both drugs are amphetamines.

Since the drugs they use are bad, it stands to reason that the fate of users is even worse. As Walker puts it, “The way the media casts drug users as disgusting people is a big part of the media campaign that I follow through the different decades.”

The reality is far more nuanced, according to Walker. Drugs aren’t good or bad. They’re just agents to accomplish a goal, whether it be treatment or stress reduction.

“The whole reason the drug war continues is because criminalization has silenced users,” she continues, pointing out that more than 90 percent of users of every drug do not suffer addiction. “It means there are all these self-regulating users. How come we never talk about them?”

Those are just a few of the highlights in a book that has pushed the cultural studies scholar into the limelight and a new role as an advocate for changing drug policy. As part of the effort, she’s also done a TEDx speech on the subject, written op-ed pieces about safe consumption sites and had the Drug Policy Alliance ask her to lead an event to discuss ways to make drug research reach across multiple disciplines to create more cohesive policy.

Although the book was written primarily as an academic work, she also did a six-month tour of bookstores and libraries throughout the Pacific Northwest. The excursion led to the sale of 1,200 copies of the book and gave her the chance to talk about drug policy and perceptions with people from all walks of life.

“General audiences have really been fascinating,” she says. “I think people are hungry to talk about these issues in ways that are more complicated than the media representation of what’s going on.”

And that’s the point of the book, she says: “My goal is to inform, to get people to think differently. I want people to ask the right questions.”