Ethical Storytelling of Psychoactive Substances and Drugs Policy in Bristol

How can ethical storytelling be used to develop new drug policy, to inform how we can live well with drugs in our communities, and to destigmatise drugs and people who use them?

Bristol has a long history and connection with a wide range of psychoactive substances. From the transatlantic slave trade of tobacco and rum, the invention of nitrous in the late 18th century, the legal trade and subsequent banning of khat in 2014, through to the UK’s first Home Office licensed city-centre drug-safety checking in the present (The Loop, in partnership with Bristol City Council, Bristol Drugs Project (BDP) and The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC)).

This project believes that storytelling can shed light on the structural conditions that drive people into contact with illegal drug markets in the first place. Through this project the researchers aim to start a dialogue about the effectiveness of different policy responses to tackle drugs-related issues in Bristol, to inform how we can live well with drugs in our communities. They hope that this project will contribute to destigmatising drugs and people who use them, in line with Transform’s Anyone’s Child campaign.

What will the project involve? 

This research project will consider how to ethically conduct a participatory research project around sensitive and challenging issues related to drugs and drugs policy. The researchers plan to work collaboratively to gather and curate a range of stories from Bristol to explore the history of psychoactive substances in the city, the impacts of these markets on local communities, and the policy responses. They want to find the best way to present these stories in an accessible and engaging way to new audiences, perhaps through the use of mapping, animation and graphics, and other visual mediums, while always representing people’s experiences authentically and respectfully.

The project aims to explore: How can stories about drugs in Bristol be gathered in an ethical and respectful way? How can they be represented, shared and engaged with by communities in Bristol?  The researchers wish to build on their amassed collective experience working in the fields of anthropology, memory studies and with lived experience to develop ethical storytelling principles and best practice for sharing narratives about drug issues.

The project intends to collaborate with researchers from the Drugs and Policy Interdisciplinary Network in a workshop which critically explores the ethical and methodological opportunities and challenges for gathering and sharing real-life stories about drugs. We will also discuss how to communicate the history of psychoactive substances in Bristol, and the city’s ground-breaking innovations which intend to reduce the harms of drugs through stories and lived experience.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Neil Carrier (Department of Anthropology and Archaeology,  University of Bristol) is an Associate Professor in Social Anthropology with much of his research focused on the study of drugs in East Africa and the East African Diaspora including doctoral and postdoctoral research into the stimulant drug known as khat, and a current UKRI-funded project Cannabis Africana: Drugs and Development in Africa.
  • Jane Slater (Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Transform Drug Policy Foundation) is the campaign leader for ‘Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control’. Her work at Transform involves research, education and advocacy, as well as supporting others who speak out for reform.
  • Matthew Brown (Latin American Studies, University of Bristol) is a historian who works across the fields of languages and cultures leading interdisciplinary projects with applied findings to policy and shaping of public opinions.
  • Mary Ryder (School of Education, University of Bristol) is a PhD researcher exploring drug policy, transitional justice and memory in Colombia through collaborative, creative methods. She works closely with drugs policy advocacy organisation and has been working at Transform since 2016 as the Anyone’s Child coordinator in this role she runs the activist network, supports the family members in their advocacy efforts for safer drug policies and helps to create space for the stories to be heard.

What is to come?

The project hopes to develop an archive of stories from Bristol of people whose lives have been affected by drugs and drugs policy. To do so, they will largely draw on their existing contacts -Anyone’s Child families, Avon and Somerset police, politicians, local treatment organisations and colleagues in the Bristol Somali community. To explore how drugs and drugs policies impacted people in Bristol in the past we will consult historical archives.

The researchers intend to organise a workshop with UoB academics which will focus on how storytelling can address challenging and sensitive issues such as the ‘war on drugs’.

Ultimately, the project will organise a public event in Bristol which draws on storytelling to explore drug use and drug policy in the city. A couple of options they are considering include an event in Easton with the Somali community to discuss the use of khat and the impact of its prohibition, another is an event in Bedminster focussing on the history of tobacco. The researchers plan to hold an event at the University of Bristol to share the research findings with academics across the fields of Health, Social Sciences and Law and Arts. There will be ongoing dissemination through Transform and Anyone’s Child social media channels, blogs and newsletters.