Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Alyson M. Cole

Subject Categories

Political Science | Public Policy


addiction recovery; critical addiction studies; discourse analysis; drug policy; ethopolitics; opioid epidemic


The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented drug epidemic instigated by overprescribed pain relievers and cheap, accessible heroin. Beyond its immense scope, what makes this opioid epidemic distinctive is a widespread awareness of its effects among privileged populations and a political consensus that it cannot be effectively addressed with existing, punitive drug policies. Building upon analyses of the drug addict identity and policy change as well as critical addiction studies, I critically examine the discourses of the opioid epidemic, considering their impact on U.S. drug policy since 2000 and analyzing the implications of these changes for governing -- in a Foucauldian sense -- people labeled drug addicts. I demonstrate that the epidemic has brought what I term the "normalized sympathetic addict" (or NSA) to the forefront of public discourse. This empathetic figure is juxtaposed against the "marginalized threatening addict" (or MTA), the typical menacing drug addict. Focus on the NSA of the opioid epidemic has lent authority to the discourses of addiction disease and recovery, which are informed by ethopolitical and advanced liberal governmental logics, making possible novel modes of government through the "recovering addict" identity. The "progressive" public health policies inspired by these discourses allegedly offer equal opportunities to both NSAs and MTAs to engage in recovery. However, I argue that recovery's individualizing and privatizing logic enables these policies to perpetuate the discriminatory effects of the War on Drugs by obscuring inequalities and displacing blame for biased outcomes onto addicts' individual choices to accept or reject recovery. Thus, despite significant changes in discourse inspired by the opioid epidemic's NSA, drug policy remains a useful tool for managing problematic subjects through their identities and maintaining the hegemonic political order, even as it claims to be more humane and less discriminatory.