Matthew DeCarlo
Health, Medicine and Nursing
Material Type:
College / Upper Division
  • Addiction
  • Drugs
  • Social Work
  • Substance Abuse
  • License:
    Creative Commons Attribution

    Criminalization and social work practice with people who use drugs

    Criminalization and social work practice with people who use drugs


    In the present moment, the centrality of the criminal justice in how our society approaches substance use and abuse is under renewed scrutiny.  Students will independently read and watch videos assigned by the instructor and address in a critical and reflective manner on how social work practice with people who use drugs would be different in a world where drug use was not criminalized. 

    Videos Essay 1: What are video essays?

    This assignment scaffolds the format of the video essay. I spend about three weeks total on each video discussion board. Week 1 introduces the assignment and prompt. In Week 2, each students' video essays are due. In week 3, I watch as many student videos as possible, commenting alongside students (whose comments are due in Week 3). In the week 3 class, I review my favorite video essays and summarize/discuss the themes I saw across all videos in the class. Then, we review the next video essay prompt and start the cycle again. 

    I follow the same format for all 5 discussion boards throughout the semester. Give yourself enough time to watch videos, and definitely do them at 1.5x or 2x speed. You may want to work with a teaching assistant (if available) to check off participation on comments and videos if you are unable to watch all of them. Also, you could set your LMS grading system to give full credit on the due date, adjusting for anyone who did not submit on time.

    I recommend using the grading and feedback system in your LMS rather than Flipgrid, as students need to log onto and click in a specific place to get your video feedback through the Flipgrid platform. If you would like to record videos, my advice would be to keep your video comments publicly consumable and keep your private comments to people within the LMS, email, or other well-established private channels. 

    For example, here is what my class thought about video essay 1:

    • Make a connection
      • Interesting topic (hopefully, I’ve chosen one)
      • Clickbait tagline (hadn’t thought of that) 
    • Preperation
      • Outline= yes. Script= more than just reading
      • Critical thinking 
    • Format
      • Not as formal as a written essay, but similar
      • NOT perfect. But use words well. 
    • Pragmatics
      • Light in the room
      • Audio on device
      • Quiet place (not always available)

    Students need a lot of encouragement to help them embrace their role in this assignment as "creators."

    In the present moment, the centrality of the criminal justice in how our society approaches substance use and abuse is under renewed scrutiny. In this assignment, students will independently read and watch videos assigned by the instructor and address in a critical and reflective manner on how social work practice with people who use drugs would be different in a world where drug use was not criminalized. 

    • A total of five prompts are provided for video discussion using the Flipgrid application.
    • Videos should be between 5-10 minutes.
    • Videos should be visually engaging.
      • No disembodied PowerPoint narration.
      • A person talking into camera is the default,
      • But make your essays as creative as possible.
      • You can use a whiteboard, paper and pencil, objects in your house.
      • You can also use the picture insertion feature on Flipgrid.
      • You can record a slideshow of evocative photographs and upload to Flipgrid.
    • Focus on the message you want to get across.


    Video essay prompt 1:

    • Browse YouTube. What makes for a good video essay? 
    • Cite an example and provide a link in your video notes
    • Will your videos be more reflective and personal or more objective and professional?

    Video essay 2: Stigma and stereotypes about drug use

    The readings provided here are a suggestion, and professors should fill in whatever alternative perspectives on addiction they feel are necessary. 

    Similarly, I also provide a "drug myth-busting" video around this time. In my class, this assignment runs parallel to the introductory chapters of the Miller et al. (2019) book on drugs and drug treatment. It is vital that this clinically-focused work is contextualized in both the contexts of police violence and racism as well as our culture's beliefs and norms about drugs and people who use them. This content is missing from Miller and other clinically-focused books on social work practice in the addictions. 

    In previous classes, I have alternately used Week 2 to provide "first thoughts" on the role of criminalization in addiction and contextualizing the class within the Black Lives Matter protests and movement for social justice. Potential resources for that include the Police Brutality Mega-Thread on Twitter and news articles like this one from Vice News that links police violence and the War on Drugs. It's important to frame this lesson in terms that centers anti-racism, rather than simply stating that ending the war on drugs will fix everything. Ending the war on drugs will not end police violence. It will simply reduce some of the reasons police hurt and kill people they suspect of using drugs. I created this video lecture to summarize my thoughts on the issue. 


    As practitioners, our understanding of addiction and people who use of drugs and alcohol are influenced by the cultural and historical context in which we live. It is important for us to interrogate and critique these ideas, as we are likely to encounter them among colleagues, clients, and community members as well as in the theories of addiction and addiction treatment. 

    Last week, we used the following readings to explore the (chronic, relapsing) brain disease model of addiction. According to Volkow and colleagues (2016), the disease model of addiction focuses on the three symptoms of the disease of addiction:

    1. desensitization of the reward circuits of the brain
    2. increased conditioned responses related to the substance an individual is dependent upon
    3. declining function of brain regions that facilitate decision making and self-regulation.

    As social workers, we know that the social world must be viewed through a multi-theoretical lens that acknowledges the multiple simultaneous biological, psychological, social, and spiritual dimensions of human behavior in the social environment. This week, we reviewed three different perspectives on addiction--focusing on the neurobiology of learning, attachment theory, and trauma-informed practice. 

    Video essay 2:

    • What is the predominant view of drug use and addiction in our society? 
    • Describe some of the stereotypes and biases our society has about people who use drugs.
    • Compare and contrast the bio-psychosocial-spiritual model and the brain disease model of addiction. 
    • Find a popular news article that uses only biological factors to describe drug use. Provide the link in your video notes.
    • Critique the article you find, highlighting psychological, social, spiritual, and other biological factors that influence substance use, other than the dopamine reward system and genetics. 

    Video essay 3: Criminalization vs. legal regulation of drugs

    The Every 25 seconds reading is an outstanding guide to the human rights case for decriminalization of drugs and eliminating the role of the criminal justice system in our society's response to personal use of drugs. I would love to teach more from it, and you may find more value in other chapters of that report. 

    Possible areas for discussion might be the role of criminalization in child welfare, mandated clients and mandatory treatment, etc. 

    Last week, we discussed the disease model of addiction and complicated it by offering alternative perspectives on what addiction is and how it operates in the world. It is important to link our society's beliefs in a person who uses drugs' lack of control and powerlessness with the policy structures designed to manage and deter drug use. 

    The primary method by which we address drugs and people who use them in society is through the criminal justice system. In the past year alone (2019), over 600,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possession alone. At the same time, a handful of states and DC have legalized and regulated the sale of marijuana while many others have decriminalized or reduced punishments for possession of marijuana. This trend is highly likely to continue as states eye marijuana tax revenues in the recover from COVID-19. 

    This tension between a strict prohibition presents a conundrum for practice. Our culture's beliefs about substance use and people who use drugs are changing. Moreover, agency practices and policies will need to change. The purpose of this video essay is to reflect on those changes, marking down your "first thoughts" on the issue as well as applying the information from the introduction, key recommendations, and Chapters 1-3 of the ACLU/HRW report "Every 25 seconds" (2016)

    Video essay 3 prompt:

    • Prior to class what were your ideas and feelings about treating drug use as a criminal issue?
    • What are some positive and negative consequences of punishing drug use as part of the criminal justice system?
    • New Jersey is likely to legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana in the next few years.
      • What impacts (harmful and beneficial) will this have on the clients and communities you serve?
      • What impacts will this have on policies as your agency and agencies with whom your clients interact?

    Video essay 4: The experience of being policed and criminalized

    In the Movement for Family Power video (probably the most important video in this series), students will hear from parents who used drugs and had their children taken away because of it. Students will need to balance the right of children to be free of neglect and abuse with the right of parents to be with their children as well as supports needed in their work to address problematic substance use. This is a controversial topic, and it will require the instructor to balance the students' own experiences in child welfare (good or bad) with what parents themselves report (in this video, it focuses on predatory and abusive practices).

    Last week, we discussed the likely legalization of marijuana and how it might impact your practice. This week, we will read and discuss about the decriminalization of all drugs, not just cannabis. We will review why drug courts and diversion programs, while an improvement on the status quo, still require coersion of people who use drugs in ways that make treatment less likely to succeed. 

    Moreover, we will dive in detail into the experiences of people who use drugs who have their children taken away as part of child welfare investigations and describe in detail the experience of being policed for people suspected of using drugs.

    Video essay prompt 4:

    • How do the foster care and criminal justice system reinforce one another in how they oppress people who use drugs?
    • If you do not work in child welfare currently (or within your specialization in child welfare) discuss how the criminalization of drug use impacts your current practice.
    • How would practice with people who use drugs in your current or future placement be different if all drug use were decriminalized?

    Video essay 5:

    As in other sections, it's important to note for students that they do not have to come up with one specific answer. In fact, their profession has not embraced a specific answer to the problem of drug use. Social workers find themselves on both sides of the legalization/criminalization debate. However, all sides acknowledge the need for drastic change from the system that we have. It is this desire for action that should be nurtured in this week.

    In the future, I would like to expand what is here to more completely integrate how criminalization influences the often abusive and counterproductive approaches to drug treatment our society implements. The Reveal News article is one example of "work therapy" (i.e., slave labor) mandated for people who use drugs. 

    Last week, we discussed the experience of people and parents who use drugs, with a specific focus on the child welfare system. This week, we will look at concrete proposals for ending the war on drugs and reflect on how the current approach to drug criminalization leads to ineffective and often abusive treatment practices.

    Video essay prompt 5:

    • Which of the following models of drug control—criminalization, decriminalization, or legalization and regulation of sales—is most appropriate for other currently illegal drugs like hallucinogens, opiates, and stimulants?
    • How should our society make reparations to communities impacted by the drug war?

    Self-reflection and community contribution

    Ironically, I prefer for these reflections to be written. I tell students to keep it under 2 pages, no references, and in an informal tone (consistent with a reflective essay). 


    Students are also required to submit (separately) a reflection on their contributions to their classmates' learning, citing specific examples from the virtual learning spaces we use in the class. The main one is flipgrid, and this self-reflection and community contribution is how I grade this assignment. From week-to-week, I just give feedback and my thoughts on what they wrote. 

    • Look back at your videos for prompts 1-5. How has your perception of criminalization of substance use changed over time, if it has?
      • What challenges and opportunities do you think drug decriminalization poses for social work intervention with people who use drugs?
      • What impact will it have on health and human services more broadly?
    • Look back at your video comments on your peers’ video essays.
      • What challenges and opportunities for drug decriminalization are presented by your peers and what do you think about them?