DCU Home | Our Courses | Loop | Registry | Library | Search DCU


Module Specifications

Archived Version 2019 - 2020

Module Title Drugs in Society
Module Code NS141
School 38

Online Module Resources

Module Co-ordinatorDr Mark PhilbinOffice NumberH245b
NFQ level 8 Credit Rating 5
Pre-requisite None
Co-requisite None
Compatibles None
Incompatibles None

In contemporary societies, controversies abound in relation to what counts as proper and improper drug use as well as how drugs should be controlled, regulated, supplied, encouraged and discouraged. Within this module, we explore these controversies and focus on arguments about the following: normalisation and drug use; a "rational approach" to drug-related harms; prohibition, decriminalisation and legalisation of drug use; the potential for "responsible" drug use; drugs and identity; medications and medicalisation; and drug-assisted human enhancement. Through addressing these arguments, we explore some fundamental questions to do with human nature, freedom, responsibility, and risk-taking.

Learning Outcomes

1. Explore arguments about normalisation and normality in relation to both recreational drug use and the use of medications.
2. Discuss the value of a 'rational approach' to the evaluation of drug-related harms
3. Examine the uses of prohibition in the field of drugs policy
4. Explore libertarian arguments in favour of drug legalisation
5. Examine the case for harm reduction and the decriminalisation of illicit drug use
6. Appraise the potential for 'responsible drug use' with particular attention to alcohol use in Ireland
7. Explore the relations between drug use and identity
8. Examine arguments about the uses of medication and how this relates to population health
9. Explore the ethics of drug-assisted human enhancement.
10. Consider what count as good reasons to use drugs

Workload Full-time hours per semester
Type Hours Description
Lecture24Participation in lectures
Assignment Completion23Writing a reflective journal in weekly sections which links to the lectures.
Assignment Completion30Preparation of an essay on good reasons for drug use.
Independent Study48For general reading and use of Loop
Total Workload: 125

All module information is indicative and subject to change. For further information,students are advised to refer to the University's Marks and Standards and Programme Specific Regulations at: http://www.dcu.ie/registry/examinations/index.shtml

Indicative Content and Learning Activities

Norms, normalisation and drug use
We explore the following claims: that patterns of drug use need to be understood by reference to history, culture and prevailing norms; that consumption of illegal, recreational drugs is increasingly 'normal' within contemporary societies and Ireland in particular; that such normalisation suggests the need for pragmatic drugs policies oriented to harm reduction and for a certain moral neutrality; and that there are grounds for ethical concern about "normal" recreational drug use.

Taking a rational view of drug-related risks
We explore the concept of risk and the idea that decisions about drugs should be informed by evidence about the comparative risks of various kinds of drug use. More especially, we focus on the work of David Nutt and his arguments in favour of a "rational approach" to drug consumption and policy.

Drug prohibition considered
We explore prohibition policies in relation to drug use. Most especially, we consider some sweeping claims that such policies are ineffective and counterproductive but we deal cautiously with these claims and discuss some more nuanced views of the uses of prohibition. Particular attention is given to the work of Wayne Hall and his analysis of the history of American policies on alcohol prohibition as well as claims about "the war on drugs".

Libertarianism and legalisation
We explore an argument for the wholesale legalisation of drug use by reference to the work of Thomas Szasz and a libertarian perspective. We consider: the primary value placed upon individual freedom by libertarians; the emphasis given to self-ownership by Szasz and his view that any kind of drugs prohibition amounts to an appropriation of such ownership; the claim that freedom involves a right to make imprudent choices and responsibility involves an individual obligation to live with their consequences; the idea that continued recurrent drug use is better regarded as a habit than an addiction or illness; the distinction between vice and crime; and some counter-arguments to Szasz's claims about the nature of freedom and responsibility as well as to the extent of his drug legalisation proposals.

Harm reduction, decriminalisation and harm reduction
We again focus on the theme of harms and consider the following: the avoidance or reduction of harms as a primary ethical imperative; the emergence of harm-reduction as an oppositional kind of service provision for drug users; the accommodation of harm-reduction practices into mainstream service provision and subsequent criticisms; an "expansive" notion of harm reduction which takes account of stigmatisation; policies of decriminalisation with particular reference to the case of Portugal since 2001;and the medicalisation of illicit drug use.

"Responsible drug use" and alcohol
We examine "responsible drug use" as it relates to drinking alcohol and consider the following: the distinction that is commonly drawn between hazardous and responsible drinking; the ways in which this distinction is central to justifications of alcohol consumption; and the ways in which this distinction is fundamentally problematic.

Identity and addiction
We explore some key concepts that can help in an understanding of how people "become" addicts and how they recover from addiction. With particular reference to opiate/heroin use, we most especially attend to the relevance of identity but also consider the significance of contingency, commitment, pharmacological determinism, social opportunity and conflicted preferences.

Medication, medicalisation and the pharmaceutical industry
We examine the significance of the pharmaceutical industry in contemporary societies and for our understandings of drug use. We consider the ways in which identities are at stake in medication use, pharmaceutical companies are an integral part of growth-oriented economics and how they operate with a commercial logic. Taking the work of Joseph Dumit, we examine the almost limitless possibilities for pharmaceutical expansion associated with a focus on risks that are framed as "prediseases" or diseases in themselves and that are an increasing focus for treatment.

Antidepressants in society
We explore the place of antidepressants in society and consider: the trend towards the increased prevalence of antidepressant prescriptions and consumption; claims about the value of Prozac in signalling possibilities for human enhancement by reference to the work of Peter Kramer; evidence about the effectiveness and effects of antidepressants; the idea of depression as a brain disorder with a particular focus on the serotonin thesis; claims about the harms of antidepressants with particular attention to so-called side-effects and suicidality; and the relationships between desperation, identity and antidepressant use by reference to the work of David Karp.

Drugs and human enhancement
We analyse a number of arguments around the theme of drugs and human enhancement. We re-examine the question of what counts as a reasonable reason to take drugs and then consider ideas about drug enhancement to do with cheating, short cuts, safety, undue pressure, and "naturalness." We take particular account of the work of Julian Savalescu, John Harris and Michael Sandel.

Assessment Breakdown
Continuous Assessment100% Examination Weight0%
Course Work Breakdown
TypeDescription% of totalAssessment Date
Reassessment Requirement
Resit arrangements are explained by the following categories;
1 = A resit is available for all components of the module
2 = No resit is available for 100% continuous assessment module
3 = No resit is available for the continuous assessment component
Indicative Reading List

  • Dumit, J.: 2012, Drugs for Life: How pharmaceutical companies define our health, Duke University Press, Durham,
  • Goldacre, B.: 2013, Bad Pharma: How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it, Fourth Estate, London,
  • McKeganey, N.P.: 2011, Controversies in Drugs Policy and Practice, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills,
  • Nutt, D.: 2012, Drugs- Without the Hot Air: Minimizing the harms of legal and illegal drugs, UIT Cambridge, Cambridge,
  • Babor, T: 2010, Alcohol: No ordinary commodity, Oxford University Press, Oxford,
  • Bean, P.: 2010, Legalising Drugs: Debates and dilemmas, Policy Press, Bristol,
  • Briggs, D.: 2013, Deviance and Risk on Holiday: An ethnography of British tourists in Ibiza, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke,
  • Butler, S., Elmeland, K., Nichols, J., and Thorn, B.: 2017, Alcohol, Power and Public Health: A comparative study of alcohol policy, Routledge, London,
  • Carnwath, T. & Smith, I.: 2002, Heroin Century, Routledge, London,
  • Harris, J.: 2010, Enhancing Evolution: The ethical case for making better people, Princeton University Press, Princeton,
  • Healy, D.: 2004, Let Them Eat Prozac, New York University Press, New York,
  • Healy, D.: 2012, Pharmageddon, University of California, Berkeley,
  • Karp, D.A.: 2006, Is It Me or My Meds?, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.,
  • Kramer, P: 1997, Listening to Prozac, Penguin, New York,
  • Peele, S. & Grant, M.: 2014, Alcohol and Pleasure: A health perspective, Routledge, London,
  • Sismondo, S. & Greene, J.A.: 2015, The Pharmaceutical Studies Reader, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester,
  • Pryce, S.: 2012, Fixing Drugs: The politics of drugs prohibition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke,
  • Sandel, M.J.: 2009, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the age of genetic engineering, Belknap, Cambridge, Massachusetts,
  • Szasz, T.: 1996, Our Right to Drugs, Syracuse Unversity Press, Syracuse,
  • Whitaker, R.: 2010, Anatomy of an Epidemic, Crown, New York,
Other Resources

Programme or List of Programmes
BHSBachelor of Science in Health & Society
BSSAStudy Abroad (DCU Business School)
BSSAOStudy Abroad (DCU Business School)
ECSAStudy Abroad (Engineering & Computing)
ECSAOStudy Abroad (Engineering & Computing)
HMSAStudy Abroad (Humanities & Soc Science)
HMSAOStudy Abroad (Humanities & Soc Science)
IESAStudy Abroad (Institute of Education)
IESAOStudy Abroad (Institute of Education)
SHSAStudy Abroad (Science & Health)
SHSAOStudy Abroad (Science & Health)