Race and medicalization of drug addiction: an analysis of documentary films

Scott, Brittany
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University of Delaware
The purpose of our research is to investigate the relationship between medicalization and explanations of drug addiction by race. Medicalization refers to the process through which everyday behavior and traits are classified and/or treated as medical conditions (Conrad 2005). If medicalized, addiction could be treated through medical therapies rather than the criminal justice system. Advancements since the 1980s claim addiction is related to an individual’s biological and psychological characteristics (Leshner 1997). Our research will explore the extent to which minorities are excluded from these medicalized narratives of drug addiction and are, alternatively, discussed using criminalized ones. We content analyzed 25 documentary films (mean length of 60 minutes each) spanning nearly15 years to shed light on medicalization and race in drug addiction. Our research found definite patterns in drug addiction narratives by race: whites were more often discussed via medicalized narratives and minorities were under-represented, leading to a gap in addiction narratives for them. Results suggest a persistent racial inequality in drug abuse and addiction research and pinpoints possible negative consequences for minorities.