The symbolic crusade of policing drugs: An etnography on local drug policing and the self-legitimacy of drug detectives

Research output: ThesisPhD Thesis


Drug detectives (i.e. those police officers whose function is primarily to police drugs) are the guardians of the drug prohibition policy and, like all police officers, they have substantial power over citizens. Self-legitimacy is the belief that they as (junior) power-holders have in the ethical correctness of their power (Bottoms & Tankebe, 2012). Officers who have a balanced belief in the moral justice of their power are more democratically oriented and more likely to act in a procedurally just manner (Bradford & Quinton, 2014; Tankebe, 2018).
This dissertation explores to what extent, and on what basis, drug detectives feel their power is ethically correct. Ethnographic fieldwork, which included 40 epistemic-confrontational interviews, was carried out over 10 months in two cities in Belgium among drug detectives operating at street level and in local drug investigation units. The work of Michel Foucault inspired the theoretical and analytical framework of the research.
The study finds that drug detectives derive their self-legitimacy primarily from subjectivation in the eradicative drug discourse and from endogenous elements such as identification with the professional identity of ‘crime-fighter’, and being good at your ‘craft’ and seeking validation of this from colleagues. It is argued that an endogenous construction of self-legitimacy co-produces and strengthens some (dysfunctional) core characteristics of police culture, such as the feeling of being on a mission to fight evil and the creation of a clear distinction between ‘respectable’ citizens and ‘deviant’ citizens.
Furthermore, drug detectives’ underlying motivation is rarely fuelled by a belief in the effectiveness of their actions in reducing drug use or selling, but by the conviction that they have to take action because ‘otherwise things would get out of hand’. The policing of drugs on the street is driven by the belief among officers that it prevents nuisance and disorder. The conviction that stop-and-searches prevent (further) disorder sparks specific actions that mainly focus on the proactive controlling of socio-economically deprived neighbourhoods and individuals who are perceived as ‘out of place’.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jan 2023


Dive into the research topics of 'The symbolic crusade of policing drugs: An etnography on local drug policing and the self-legitimacy of drug detectives'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this