Making drugs ethnic : Khat and minority drug use in Sweden

Abstract: The aim of this dissertation is to study how discourses and problem representations have made some drugs and some forms of drug use into “ethnic problems” in Sweden and in Scandinavia. The primary example of such a process discussed in the dissertation concerns the use of the psychoactive and criminalized plant khat. The activity of associating a drug with ethnic minorities is defined in the dissertation as “making drugs ethnic”. By making drugs ethnic, Scandinavian welfare state institutions treat certain psychoactive substances and their users as primarily ethnic rather than as social or medical problems. Processes of making drugs ethnic thus have implications for social work practice, since understandings and proposed solutions to “drug abuse among immigrants” have been based largely on notions of ethnic or cultural difference. It has frequently been proposed that problematic khat use can be solved by increased use of “cultural competence” within social work and drug treatment institutions. This development is discussed in the dissertation as an over-emphasis of ethnicity and culture, and notions underlying this development are problematized. The dissertation contains four articles. The first analyzes discourses about khat use in Swedish daily newspapers during the period between 1986 and 2012. The article focuses on people who spoke out against khat use in the media, an activity which is described as moral entrepreneurship. Khat use was described as a “Somali” problem and as a serious threat to the Somali immigrant “community” in Sweden. The second article analyzes khat use discourses as presented in official reports evaluating projects against khat use in the Scandinavian countries. In these reports, khat use was described as causing unemployment, lack of integration and relationship problems among Somali immigrants, and the main proposed solution to the “problem” of khat use was cultural competence. The “Somali community” was positioned as in part responsible for reducing khat use, and there was a tendency to over-emphasize cultural explanations for problematic khat use. Article three takes a broader view of the notion of “drug abuse among immigrants”, a phenomenon that emerged in Sweden during the late 1980s and was in focus during the 1990s in drug treatment, social work and government contexts. There was an attempt to make the “drug-abusing immigrant” into a specific kind of client or patient in knowledge production initiatives. “Immigrants” were seen as introducing new drugs and ways of using them, creating an intermingling of drug use patterns, and being extraordinarily vulnerable. The fourth article analyzes discourses about khat expressed by persons who were active in Somali ethno-national civil society organizations in Sweden, interviewed during fieldwork carried out between 2014 and 2016. The impetus for this study was to analyze how those representatives viewed the dis-cursive association between the ethnic group they represent, and khat use. The interviewees both talked through and “talked back” to dominant discourses about khat use. Khat use was described as a problem, but khat was also seen as a drug that could be both used and “abused”. The interviewees used discourses more related to use of drugs in general, rather than about ethnicity and culture. They were aware of khat having been made ethnic, and rejected this association.