Shadow Committees: On “Drug User Voice,” Representation, and Mobilization in a Norwegian Drug Policy Reform

Until recently, Norway remained immovable on its conservative policy that illegal drug use is a crime. In 2018, the Health Minister appointed an inquiry commission to design a less restrictive drug policy, which included two “drug user representatives.” But the Minister’s choices for these posts met massive dissatisfaction from some drug users who contended that the representatives “are not real drug users” and do not “speak for” nor “act on the behalf” of their experiences and opinions. They mobilized to establish an alternative organization, the Shadow Committee, to propose a drug policy reform shaped by “the user voices” and “not polluted by political compromises.” Yet, while performing a labor of difference, this committee, too, became caught in conflicting landscapes of representation with some members contesting strategic solidarity. Based on this case, and an ethnographic fieldwork among the protesters, this article investigates the concept of representation as understood, contested and applied by “drug users.” Exploring how they relate to “user voices” and question the authenticity of some of “user representatives,” I highlight how changing political landscapes affect understandings of representation and shape political, individual and collective forms of involvement. I draw on Pitkin’s political philosophy and apply the classical categorization of political representation to suggest reconsidering the governing assumptions regarding “user representatives” that increasingly inform drug and treatment policies in Norway. I ask if the concept of representation itself may be a barrier to meaningful involvement.

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