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Crime, technology and society by Angus Bancroft
They not we: aesthetics of drug harm

They not we: aesthetics of drug harm

‘Laugh at [the ads] because when you’re in active meth addiction you don’t really care what the outside world is saying and you surely don’t care what the Internet has on it. … While you’re an active meth user, it plays no role in your recovery or wanting to get recovered.’ Melanie, in Marsh, Copes and Linnemann, 2017

The image of the meth crisis in the US and Canada is presented as one of ‘white trash’: intersection of race and class failure in the context of decay. The ‘Faces of Meth’ campaign began in 2004 with an Oregon Sheriff’s department using mug shots of meth users over time. The before and after shots showed physical and personal decline, with features intended to provoke revulsion: decaying skin, sagging faces and so on. There are longstanding issues here: we know from the history of anti-drug campaigns that shock tactics don’t work, and are usually not addressed at potential users primarily but are intended for a wider audience to show: something is being done; and these people are not you. Then there are issues with the images themselves: these reify meth as the problem, regardless of e.g. malnutrition, domestic violence, violence of the prison-criminal justice complex, the health care system, the use of other drugs, other elements of material suffering.

The images are crafted to reifies meth as a problem of rural, marginalised working class white people. Not e.g Robert Downey Jr. They commodify the drug problem, turning it into a series of shock value images to be consumed, for example, a Youtube video with 8 million views. The mug shot is part of a networked criminal aesthetic, taking in mug shot websites, jail cam, the Cops Tv show etc. The audience consume the ‘gritty realism’ on offer. Users are ‘framed’ without context. The white subjects of the pictures imply a contrast with ‘black’ African American crack-cocaine users. The latter were presented as violent, urban and lawless. The ‘white trash’ meth users are presented as self-victimising and polluting, a lost underclass. You could interpret this as putting the problem back in its racial box: drug problems are bracketed off as being about ‘they’ and not ‘we’. A fascination with the transgressive.

The pictures show we can’t expect any evidence to speak for itself. These show a bodily deformation which is not consistent across meth users and which is not reducible to this one habit in itself. We have to look at consumption practices and contexts to understand more how a drug affects the body. The campaigns did not change public perceptions. Nobody looks at that photo and thinks ‘that’s me’. Over the time of the campaign in Montana meth became more acceptable. This is normal – for example, with mephedrone reports of death spiked interest in buying it. What do meth users think? Users never think they are like ‘those’ users. Rather than rejecting the visual system promoted by Faces of Meth, users place themselves outside it even if they are objectively in that group demographically. Many found the representation funny or unserious. The ‘virginity’ image de-familys users, implying they wouldn’t ever have a normal sex life.  They did not long term changes they attributed to meth, such as boyfriends behaving violently.

They saw their addiction is too potent to be overcome by these messages. But also said that smoking meth would avoid these problems which largely came with intravenous use. IV users tend to be at the bottom of all user status orders especially heroin, cocaine and meth. There was a strong emphasis on ice (chrystal) meth being ‘clean’ and homebrew ‘shake and bake’ being dirty, making people ‘crazy’.

Marsh W, Copes H and Linnemann T (2017) Creating visual differences: Methamphetamine users perceptions of anti-meth campaigns. International Journal of Drug Policy 39: 52–61. DOI: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2016.09.001.

Linnemann T and Wall T (2013) ‘This is your face on meth’: The punitive spectacle of ‘white trash’ in the rural war on drugs. Theoretical Criminology 17(3). SAGE Publications Ltd: 315–334. DOI: 10.1177/1362480612468934.



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