Our member, Dr Simon Flacks (University of Westminster, United Kingdom) talks about his new book, Law, Drugs and the Politics of Childhood (Routledge, 2021).
The book explores the association between the regulation of drugs and the political role of “childhood” in that governing process. I was particularly interested in two avenues of inquiry: first, I wanted to investigate the ways in which the discursive entities of “childhood” and “drugs” are constructed or produced within discourses on the control of drugs (including alcohol); and second, I sought to explore what childhood does in such discourses, and so its role as a normalising or regulatory force.
The book therefore asks what is at stake when legislators, lobbyists and decision-makers revert to claims about children in order to sustain a given legal or policy position. It begins with a genealogy of the relationship between the discursive artefacts of “drugs” and “childhood”, and I then draw on Foucauldian methodologies to explore how childhood functions as a device in the biopolitical management of drug use(rs) and supply.
As well as analysing decriminalisation initiatives and sentencing measures, my intention was to reach beyond the criminal context to consider the significance of the “politics of childhood” for law- and policymaking in the fields of family justice and education. I thought it was important to explain that the currency of childhood and “youth” is not reducible to rhetoric; it shapes the discursive entities of drugs and addiction and is one of the ways in which particular substances become socially, culturally and politically intelligible. At the same time, “drugs” serve as a technology of child normalisation.
I have thought for a while that the relationship between drugs and childhood merits more exploration, at least beyond simply pointing out that children and drugs are both things that we tend to get worried about. My interest in the subject goes back to my experience working in the field of children’s rights, prior to beginning a PhD and embarking on a career in academia.
As I followed the proceedings of the United Nations Human Rights Council and other UN bodies as part of my work for an NGO, I became more and more preoccupied with both the reverence afforded to childhood in discussions about morally charged issues such as sex and drugs, and the ways in which the rhetoric of “children’s rights” was being used to justify quite divergent policy positions. How could it be used both to support, say, LGBTQI children’s right to sex education, or the provision of age-appropriate drug services, while also justifying the denial of rights to members of the LGBTQI population, the violent suppression of drug users and the regulation of women’s reproductive rights?
I was really interested in the apparent coexistence of competing understandings of children and childhood. Talk of children could draw attention to the importance of children’s autonomy, capacity and well-being, while also emphasising their vulnerability, immaturity and capacity for deviance. As I embarked on postgraduate study, it seemed to me that the field of drug control was ripe for a more critical engagement with the question of childhood.
Some jurisdictions have been subject to efforts to ban either sweets that resemble drugs or associated paraphernalia or the manufacture of drugs that are packaged like sweets in order, it is assumed, to appeal to children. As I discuss further below, these moves evince some instructive aspects of the relationship between drug regulation, innocence and childhood.
In the United Kingdom in 2003, an early day motion, signed by 46 MPs and sponsored by Lynne Jones MP, was introduced into the House of Commons. Signatories called for a ban on “syringe shaped sweets,” sold under the name “Freekee Drops,” which featured “a cartoon character on the packaging with swirling eyes and salivating mouth” and which, argued the sponsors, “could lead children to associate addictive drugs like heroin with pleasurable adult behaviour” (EDM, 2003).
Although there were no reports that anyone, including children, had (or have) taken drugs for such reasons, the juxtaposition between images of depravity (addiction) and representations of innocence (sweets) was enough to prompt Prime Minister Tony Blair to promise to take action (Veysey, 2002). Danny Kushlick, director of Transform, an organisation that promotes legal reform, said: “It sounds hideous, unwholesome and obscene. It does have to be discouraged because what it could do is lead children to putting real drugs into their mouths. That’s a far bigger danger than normalising syringes.”
There was agreement that children would be unable to distinguish between sweets and heroin, or between the image and the reality. Children were framed as passive victims of the nefarious actions of distant corporations (corresponding with the lurking spectre of the predatory dealer), incapable of resisting the ever-present and encroaching spectre of drugs.
Consistent efforts have also been made, in the United Kingdom and the United States in particular, to lengthen the sentences for dealers who purportedly target children with products that look like sweets. This is a different argument from the one made by, for example, the authors of a report into the regulation of cannabis in Canada (Health Canada, 2016). In that report, the authors suggested that, while cannabis edibles should be permitted since they are a potentially healthier means of consumption than smoking, they should not be designed in ways that appeal to children because of the risk that children would eat them by accident (ibid. p. 3).
Rather, there is a long-held belief that some suppliers are so unscrupulous that they deliberately design drugs like sweets in order to ensnare a younger market. During the second reading of the Psychoactive Substances bill in the House of Lords in 2016, for example, Lord Falmer said:
The targeting of children is particularly egregious and reveals the intentions of the sellers. Despite being labelled as not for human consumption, these substances are often packaged like sweets and sold at pocket money prices. As numerous undercover reports have found, the sellers know exactly what they are doing and provide advice on how people should take the drugs. (Column 762)
In the United States in 2013, following a series of news reports in which drug dealers were reported to be targeting children with flavoured methamphetamine, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein sponsored the introduction of the Saving Kids from Dangerous Drugs Act into the United States Senate. The aim was to amend existing legislation in order to create a specific offence of producing or distributing illicit drugs that had been “combined with a beverage or candy product, marketed or packaged to appear similar to a bever- age or candy product, or modified by flavoring or coloring,” and to know or believe that such substances would be given to under-18s. The bill was supported by a number of individuals and organisations including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (Adler, undated).
As discussed above, dealers would be taking an enormous and likely fruitless risk by marketing drugs as sweets to lure children. Moreover, adults like sweets too, so it would make sense for drug producers to package their product in an appealing form. The emergence of e-cigarettes with flavours such as “bubble gum” has also raised concerns about the targeting of children and young people (WHO, 2020).
However, these discourses on drug packaging speak to broader concerns and anxieties about identity and threats to child welfare. Recall that discourses of innocence serve to essentialise childhood as a stable state through which adults may manage their anxiety about both their, and their children’s, vulnerability to social, economic and environmental change. One of the ways in which abjection manifests is by virtue of a departure from the homogenous essence of innocence. The exclusionary consequences of abjection result, in turn, from efforts to secure one’s identity and to repress deep anxieties. Sweets and candy can occupy important positions in our senses of self; they remind us of times past, particularly “lost childhoods”, and serve as nostalgic reminders of innocence (Richardson, 2004).
For Joanne Faulkner (2013: 128), the innocent child “both remembers and forgets for the community: first, by representing to the community a past it feels is lost; and, second, representing an unconsciousness, or insouciance, into which adult cares can be invested and expunged” [authors’ emphasis]. Through nostalgia, childhood innocence thus fetishises memory as well as vulnerability. In each of the examples above, sweets and candy served as symbols of childhood, mobilised to frame the drug risk as one which feeds on children’s vulnerability and purity. Yet the relationship to “real” childhood is only ever imagined, as “nostalgia for “childhood,” imagined as a time without worry or care, is possible only by virtue of forgetting the particular social stresses and concerns with which one’s childhood self had had to contend” (Faulkner, 2013: 129).