Meeting: December 2019
Tristan Duncan, Cameron Duff, Bernadette Sebar and Jessica Lee’s (2017) article ‘“Enjoying the Kick”: Locating pleasure within the drug consumption room’ is a conceptually innovative empirical analysis of a rarely considered topic: pleasure within supervised consumption rooms. The article compellingly argues for the importance of not only analysing pleasure but attempting to reorient it in the course of harm reduction practice. Duncan et al.’s argument for the significance of pleasure as a technique for engaging clients of supervised consumption rooms has important implications for these services and harm reduction more generally.
This article stems from data gathered during an ethnographic study of a Frankfurt supervised consumption room named ‘La Strada’. Over 12 months the first author, Tristan Duncan, undertook over 800 hours of volunteer work, conducted semi-structured interviews with 25 clients, 15 with staff, and completed an auto-photography project with six clients. Drawing on recent insights from alcohol and other drug research working with new-materialist or post-humanist concepts, the article analyses how the spatial, temporal and affective dynamics of La Strada worked to shape the emergence of pleasurable drug consumption events.
Duncan et al.’s (2019) characterisation of La Strada can be understood to contrast it with other medically supervised consumption services found in settings such as Australia, Canada and Germany. La Strada is made up of a café/drop in space where clients can socialise, access free and low-cost food and interact with staff if needed. It is an explicitly non-medical space, adorned with harm reduction posters, couches and games to play. Clients must first move through the café if they wish to use the consumption room which, in the words of one participant, is described as a ‘do-it-yourself medical facility’. Unlike the café, the consumption space is utilitarian in design, a small room with seven seats and injection benches devoid of decoration and – as can be seen in the photos that accompany the article – mirrors and signs with the service rules adorn the walls of the consumption room.
According to Duncan et al., the spatial arrangements of La Strada are a particularly significant force in the production of pleasurable consumption events. They argue that the consumption room offers a space sealed off from the stigmatising and threatening gaze of and interference from security staff and police. This sense of safety is made available by the privacy and security of the consumption room. Importantly space does not act alone; temporality is positioned as being equally significant. Highlighting a co-productive relationship between space and time, the consumption rooms offers an opportunity for clients to take their time preparing, consuming and feeling their drugs of choice. The authors are careful to avoid mobilising a linear causality, however, emphasising that space, time and their co-implication in drug pleasures are made in practice. For example, analysing one participant’s account of using other safe consumption services, they argue:
The intensity of Frankfurt’s alternative consumption rooms, particularly their excessive noise levels and wandering bodies, produced a level of stress and distraction that disrupted the fluidity and enjoyment of the consumption event and his high. (97)
Reflecting other alcohol and other drug research, this analysis demonstrates that drug pleasures are not essential to drugs but rather achievements made possible by the particular coming together of different forces in an ‘event’ of consumption. Spatial and temporal arrangements and human practices cannot guarantee that pleasure, or indeed any drug effect, will reliably emerge in consumption.
A particular strength of this analysis is the author’s careful handling of these human and non-human agencies. While the analysis often focusses on non-human forces such as space and time, Duncan et al. also consider interactions between clients and La Strada staff which they argue are implicated in the pleasures made available at the service:
Indeed, the generation of comfort, relaxation and relief, itself a positive, pleasurable and emergent feature of consumption events at La Strada, was tightly bound to respectful, informal and friendly encounters between staff and client. (97)
Further, they suggest that clients actively ‘draw on the material and affective affordances of the café to lengthen and supplement their intoxication and its pleasures’ (98). In this way, the pleasures of La Strada are practiced by the clients and staff but co-produced by the spatial, temporal and affective dynamics of the service. The café is positioned as a particularly important section of La Strada as it offered a place to socialise and safely enjoy drugs’ pleasures after using the consumption room. Contrastingly, to exit the service immediately after consumption could cut short the pleasures and reintroduce the paranoia and other negative feelings afforded by public space. Duncan et al.’s focus on the importance of La Strada’s café emphasises a key implication of their analysis: in contrast to research that positions the benefits of supervised consumption rooms as primarily their ability to reduce risks, these services do many things and offer more than fresh injecting equipment, alcohol wipes and a temporary location for drug consumption.
Duncan et al. argue that for the participants in the research, La Strada was appealing because it offered a pleasurable time and space for consumption. By allowing for and actively attempting to generate pleasure, the authors suggest La Strada is not only less stigmatising but also more pragmatic. They convincingly argue that a near exclusive focus on reducing risk in the operation and objectives of harm reduction is too rigid to properly engage with the diverse needs of people who consume drugs and ignores the possibility that pleasure may be utilised in the reduction of harm. Pleasure here is constructed as a technique of engagement in a harm reduction service. Importantly, pleasure is not simply understood to be produced solely by drugs but takes shape through the material and affective resources of La Strada as a whole, including spaces such as the café that are not focussed on the moment of consumption, but offer a time and place in which to enjoy it. In this way, Duncan et al. argue that a concern for pleasure should be codified within the regulations of services such as these. However, they are careful to clarify that defining and enforcing rules too rigidly can operate to estrange clients. In this way, service rules and staff need to be flexible and responsive to the emergent pleasures and harms of drugs but also client needs and desires.
This is a strong example of innovative and conceptually complex empirical research. Duncan et al.’s argument for increased focus on pleasure has important implications for drug consumption room services delivery specifically, and harm reduction more generally.
Fraser S and Moore D (eds) (2011) The Drug Effect: Health, Crime and Society. Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Cambridge University Press.
Dennis, F. and Farrugia, A. (2017) Materialising drugged pleasures: Practice, politics, care, International Journal of Drug Policy, 49, 86–91.
Dilkes-Frayne, E. (2014). Tracing the ‘event’ of drug use: ‘Context’ and the coproduction of a night out on MDMA. Contemporary Drug Problems, 41(3), 445–479.
Watson, T.M., Kolla, G., van der Meulen, E. Dodd, Z. (2020). Critical studies of harm reduction: Overdose response in uncertain political times. International Journal of Drug Policy (available online before print).