ALICE RAP A-Debate: U-Turn on Addictions?

Report by Alex Mold

Alice Rap picture

What does the concept of ‘addiction’ mean? Is drug use a legacy of our past? Which drugs cause the most harm, and to who?

These were just some of the questions debated at the ALICE RAP A-Debate in Barcelona, 17-18 February 2016. The event represented the culmination of the five-year Addiction and Lifestyles in Contemporary Europe – Reframing Addictions Project (ALICE RAP), funded by the European Commission. The ALICE RAP project brought together around 200 scientists from more than 25 countries and 29 different disciplines. It aimed to strengthen scientific evidence to inform the public and political dialogue and to stimulate a broad and productive debate on current and alternative approaches to addictions.

As part of this project, the Centre’s Virginia Berridge led a workpackage on ‘Addiction through the ages’. Working with partners in Italy, Austria, Poland, Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia, the team investigated the history of addiction in Europe, a previously neglected topic.

The A-Debate, which was also accessible online, aimed to present and discuss key research findings coming out of the ALICE RAP project, their policy implications and the science with the greatest potential to contribute to smart and evidence-based global drugs policy.

A key message of the debate surrounded an effort to reframe addiction, to move away from this concept and towards one of ‘heavy use over time’. Peter Anderson, one of the leaders of the ALICE RAP project, argued that the signs and symptoms that have been attributed to addiction or dependence are actually as a result of heavy drinking/drug use. He suggested that the terms ‘dependence’ or ‘addiction’ were thus redundant, and should be replaced with ‘heavy use over time.’

Other sessions in the debate presented different perspectives on alcohol and drug use. Virginia Berridge chaired the session on the ‘chameleon concept’ of addiction. This session presented findings from Area 1 of ALICE RAP, which had been tasked with examining the public discourse and the social images of drugs and their consumers, as well as the role of different actors and networks, and how these have changed over time. The Centre’s Alex Mold presented a summary of the ‘Addiction through the ages’ workpackage, looking at change over time and place in the concept of addiction from the 1860s to the 1980s. Rachel Herring (University of Middlesex) talked about the key findings from workpackage two, which analysed the influence of stakeholders on drug and alcohol policy. Matilda Hellman (University of Helsinki) discussed her workpackage’s work, which was concerned with the images of addiction.

Following the presentations an interesting discussion took place about the contribution of history and the critical social sciences to perspectives on addiction and drug and alcohol policy. From a historical point of view, there have been many attempts to re-frame drugs and addiction over time. It will be fascinating to track the fate of ‘heavy use over time’ over time.

CaxiaForum textile factory
The CaxiaForum where the debate took place. A former textile factory, now a gallery.