What is ‘drug policy’ research?

Author: Alison Ritter

Theme: Social Science & Policy Research Year: 2023

There is no existing schema to describe the enormous variety of drug policy research. In this paper, I provide conceptual tools to think about drug policy research. Motivated by my work with the International Journal of Drug Policy, and my own drug policy research program, I consider the diversity of disciplines involved in drug policy research, the varied theoretical frameworks and ontological positions, and the multiple research methods.

The resulting schema tracks five different types of drug policy research:

a)Studying policy positions – (eg decriminalisation, safer supply, OAT, police diversion programs etc). These policy studies examine the substantive policy position and ask questions like “How strong is the evidence in support of this policy?”
b)Studying policy formation (how polices are chosen) – the dynamic iterative interactions between actors, ideas, institutions, and networks of policy advocates which result in policy formation. These studies ask questions like “How did this policy proposal become selected?”
c)Studying the role of evidence, translation and advocacy in policy dialogue. This work asks questions like “How was evidence taken up by policy advocates?”
d)Studying policy implementation – analysis of the differences between the policy as written (‘on the books’) and its implementation, including the fidelity and reach of the policy, asking questions like “Did the policy operate as intended in practice?”
e)Studying drug policy outcomes – whether the policy achieved the stated goals, its cost-effectiveness, and its consequences. Questions include “Was the policy cost-effective, and did it result in reduced harm?”

These five types are then overlaid on differing theoretical foundations, ontological positions and research methods, producing a matrix of drug policy research. This work contributes to being able to situate one’s own policy research, and provides windows into the breadth of drug policy research scholarship.

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