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ID: HR23-568
Presenting author: Alison Ritter

Presenting author biography:

Professor Alison Ritter is a drug policy scholar and Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at UNSW, Sydney. She conducts research on drug laws, drug treatment, models and methods of democratic participation in drug policy; and research focussed on policy process.

Participation and engagement in drug policy reform

Alison Ritter, Kari Lancaster, Laura McLauchlan, Matthew Kearnes
Much has been written about the theories and practices of participation – in political science and in community development. We have Arnstein’s ‘ladder of participation’, models of citizen engagement like Summits or Citizen’s Juries, and engagement through membership of formal committees. In these various dialogic processes, there is a formal event or setting in which participation occurs. Participation in these formal settings has been critiqued for the ways in which it constricts and constrains participation to conform to the expectations of those in power (Ritter et al., 2018, 2022; Madden et al 2020). It raises challenges for participating as a person who uses drugs, and may limit our views about how participation in drug policy reform actually takes place.

In a series of case studies, we have been studying participation; not participation as formal events, but participation ‘in the wild’. In this paper, we draw on two of these case studies: one about participation in a campaign to change drug laws; the second about how communities of practice evolved around opioid agonist treatment policy in covid times. The case studies involved in-depth interviews and ethnography.

Our key findings have included:
- instead of flipcharts and tables with bowls of mints, participation happens in diverse settings including in churches, celebrations, marches, and long zoom calls.
- past formal participatory structures can evolve into new, fluid and adaptive participatory approaches (moving from tables to huddles)
- relationships matter (‘its professional but its personal’)
- disagreement and difference are an intrinsic part of participation

Participation is everywhere. In recognising and contributing to more diverse policy participation spaces, we have the potential to shift power, embrace disagreement, facilitate safety, and empower myriad voices for better drug policy.