An online Australian drug discussion : illicit drug policy and the Australian Drug Discussion (AusDD) forum

  • Liam Engel

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This research project sought to answer two questions:
1. How do participants on an online Australian forum supporting people who use illicit drugs discuss and represent drugs, drug use, and related policies?
2. What insights can this online forum and its participants offer to policy makers concerned with illicit drug harm reduction?
The data corpus for this project consisted of content drawn from the Bluelight organisation’s Australian Drug Discussion forum (AusDD). This data corpus was chosen because AusDD is the largest online drug discussion forum used by Australians. The method of data analysis relied upon was qualitative thematic analysis. In this thesis I also adopt the theory of reflexive policy design and focus on responsibilisation and discourse. This approach aims to subvert prejudice, marginalisation and stigmatisation, and is attentive to these processes within the context of policy. This thesis is some of the first sensitive and inclusive research of online forums explicitly concerned with drug policy.
The analysis is presented in five chapters. The first chapter reviews an analysis of specific lexical choices across the whole AusDD forum, which is followed by detailed analyses of four illicit drug policy topics in four separate chapters: 1) Cannabis policy; 2), new psychoactive substance policy; 3), natural high policy; and 4), the enabling environments policy design. This study found that participants understood drugs to be a flexible term whose identification depended on contexts that were prejudiced against people who use illicit drugs. Participants were observed creating alternative drug discourses that focused on collective, rather than individual, responsibilities for drug use. A key finding is that forum participants were dissasociated from formal Australian illicit drug policy. However, rules of collective self-governance were developed by AusDD participants which supported ethical and pleasurable illicit drug consumption. These vernacular AusDD policies demonstrate effective approaches to deliberative engagement and harm reduction, despite the limitations of prohibition. AusDD assisted in drug activism, support and advocacy, but the impact of these practices on non-digital contexts is open to question.
In this thesis I offer a key insight for illicit drug harm reduction policy makers: harm reduction policy perpetuates prejudice against people who use illicit drugs, but can also mediate pro and anti-drug ideologies. Awareness of this limitation and of the value that deliberation and inclusion could pose to drug policy are some guiding design principles for harm reduction policy makers.
Date of Award2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDeborah Lupton (Supervisor), Glen Fuller (Supervisor) & Caroline Fisher (Supervisor)

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