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Drugs have long been seen as especially agential things, ones that are often thought to have the capacity to overcome our own agency, especially through discourses of addiction. This panel explores concepts of morality, responsibility and agency in relation to psychoactive substances.
This panel explores concepts of morality, responsibility and agency in relation to psychoactive substances. Such substances have long been seen as especially agential things, ones thought to have the capacity to overcome our own agency, especially in relation to ideas of addiction and intoxication but also ritual and healing. At times such substances even become personified, sometimes as trickster-like characters like John Barleycorn. On the other hand, we now live in an age of so-called ‘smart drugs’ like modafinil that hold promise to make us ‘more-than-human’ through increasing our stamina and ability to focus. These ideas of chemically-altered agency and personhood speak to wider debates about the moral nature of such substances and their markets, including the moral responsibility of their consumers. How do we apportion responsibility and blame to an alcoholic compared to the alcohol? Could crimes committed ‘under the influence’ be excusable through lack of mens rea? How much blame for societal ills can be placed on substances as varied as khat, cocaine and cannabis, versus the wider assemblages in which they are enmeshed? These material and semiotic aspects of drugs also speak to broader debates on the ‘more-than-human’ and how the agency of things challenges conceptions of responsibility. Despite being seen as potent things, drugs have featured little so far in such theoretical debates. We invite paper proposals that speak to these themes of licit and illicit drugs, agency and moral responsibility based on research from a broad range of ethnographic contexts.