Drug policies within urban spaces: Emotional mapping as an innovative qualitative cartography method

Mélina Germes, Luise Klaus
ISSDP Conference, Paris, May 2019

This work is in progress. A key aspect of the interdisciplinarity of our work is that we aim to bring a geographical approach to research on drug policies. First, I will further explain what we mean with “drug policies are urban policies”. From our perspective as urban geographers, we aim to understand drug policies as part of urban policies. For three reasons:

– First, local actors like health institutions, police forces, harm-reduction agencies and municipalities play a key role in the implementation of drug policies.

– Second, all drug policies are strongly spatially structured: the localisation of harm reduction facilities in certain neighbourhoods depends from the geographies of drug consumption and its analysis by policy actors.

– Third, drug consumption itself has particular geographies, strongly bounded to the broader socio-economic geography of the cities.

A comprehensive analysis of drug policies and their challenges has to consider the city as a whole AND the other urban policies led by other institutions. In order to do so, we developed a method we called “emotional mapping”.

Geographical method: emotional mapping

Mapping is a method rooted in social geography and critical cartography (Lynch, 1960; Downs & Stea, 1977).

During a qualitative semi-directive interview, people who use drugs in public talk about their everyday life experiences and emotions. Step by step, accompanied by the interviewer, the interviewees draw their living space (in black). Later they draw their lived space by choosing colours corresponding to the emotions associated with each place. We understand feelings as social constructions. Their expression reveals values, conflicts and power relationships.

For the mapping interviews, our first aim was to integrate the widest possible spectrum of emotions, which enables an understanding of them in drug places of different cities.

Secondly, we wanted to include the interference and fluctuation of emotions in one place – especially in the context of drug use.

We developed a colour wheel of emotions that works as a map legend. Every colour stands for one range of emotions. The colours green, yellow and orange symbolise positive feelings such as relaxation (green), happiness and pleasure (yellow) or bliss and desire (orange). The negative emotions are represented trough the colours blue (worry and insecurity), violet (disgust) and red (hostility and aggression). The colours are arranged on a continuous wheel for hues gradations, between positive and negative, as well as, more and less intense emotions. This arrangement reflects the overlapping of emotions regarding drug experiences.

The drawn maps are representations of individual geographies and enable us to gain a deeper understanding of specific drug places or drug user’s geographies (Behnken & Zinnecker, 2013, p.547).

The entanglement of visual and textual material represents the lived space and is therefore a lens into the way drug users experience space, producing further knowledge about pleasures and insecurities of a potentially vulnerable population group.

The methods aim is to provide results about the urban lived spaces of drugs, their appropriation by consumers – this in relation to the presence or need for harm reduction facilities.

Emo-Mapping is different from the growing corpus of spatial analysis cartographies of drug practices and harm reduction facility use. Our method is rooted in critical cartography and critical criminology, its critic of objectivists mapping practices, such as crime maps produced in geocriminological works (Belina & Germes 2016). Instead of “fear maps”, we map a diversity of emotions by a diversity of social groups, that allow to understand the paradoxes and complexities of urban spaces.

Emo-Mapping goes deep beyond the description of everyday life or beyond the narration of experiences. Emo-mapping shows how individual existences are entangled with impersonal urban policies and allows to understand cities as complex landscapes of drug consumption

Emo-mapping and urban policies: first results

The lived spaces of marginalised drug users are characterised by a high spatial precariousness and vulnerability. Their emotional geography stresses unrest, hostility and aggression. Drug use – making money, buying, consuming – is the main activity directing their routine.

They are confronted to a diversity of institutions in their everyday life, which shape massively their access to basic services, such as housing, healthcare and security. We will show how emotional mapping allows us to understand drug policies as a puzzle piece of broader urban policies.

As first results, we present “citations” of the individual drawn maps, along the relevant themes of our analysis. So you will see a mosaic of drawings coming from different emo-maps, from different marginalised drug users, from different German cities. Despite this, this illustration plates will show strong similarities.

No Harm-reduction facilities: the framework of fragile urban existences

Places of drug use are determined by the routine of making money and buying drugs, which is happening in the centre of the city. Regularly, withdrawals symptoms lead interviewees to use the drug immediately after buying it, in the very first interstice, half-hidden and half-quiet as one can find. Drug users have to find places for drug injecting and smoking, as these must be places within their reach, among the spaces one is allowed to be present and have privacy for that. Indeed, the places of drug use are not an adequate drug consumption places and the injecting process at these places is characterized by hurry and worries for the user. Charlie, 28 years old, from Munich describes this process below:

„In underground car parks as well as on the stairs. Just between the cars, kneel down, boil it up, get ready“ (Charlie, Munich)

Marginalised drug users, homeless or not, are banned from finding places for drug use within public spaces and their interstices. Most of the interviewees would prefer a DRC instead of the “the next best backyard”. They reported aggressive encounters while consuming. Public consumption places are almost exclusively connoted with negative emotions such as insecurity, worry or disgust. The places of drug use are rather an unavoidable situation the people have to confront in their daily life, than a choice of the lived space. Public drug consumption places are whether stable nor securing, but situations of frailty that change due to factors as (police) controls, public construction work or other measurements that influences the urban environment for drug user.

Harm-reduction facilities

As an example of harm-reduction facilities, we focus on DCR. In some German cities such as Berlin, Drug Consumption Rooms (DCR) allows the accessibility to a safer and better context for consumption. The DCRs are essential for drug users, because drug consumption is possible there and support is available. These are the places where one can autonomously conform to addiction. Nevertheless, no matter how good the feelings and how intense the gratitude is, most of the time, our interviewees consume outside of the DCR. There are different reasons for this. Neither the schedule of DCRs, nor their restricted number in each city could respond to the needs of the interviewees. The opening times, limited to the afternoons of opening days, leave longer closing hours: the whole weekend, as well as evening and morning of every day. Even within opening hours, the distance between the place of retrieving drugs and the DCR for the person experiencing withdrawal symptoms is significantly long. In such circumstances, only a small part of consumption practices might take place in a DCR.

All emo-maps from DCR clients highlighted the DCR with positive emotions of safety, quietness and happiness: it was the place with the most positive and safe feelings, even before the home shared with a partner or parents – undermined by conflicts around addiction with the dearest ones. The possibility of drug consumption in a safe context responds to a need of quietness, hygiene, and overall safety; facilities such as sterile equipment, meal, shower, and laundry are a significant relief for most of the homeless clients; the availability of information and support from the health and social workers make DCRs a helpful resource. Most of them were regular users reporting how important this place became for their everyday lives, particularly because of feeling accepted and welcomed, in a way they experience in no other context of their everyday lives.  In this place, marginalised drug users find acceptance and relief, it is an anchor of their precarious routines throughout adverse and dangerous public spaces.

Housing policies putting drug users at bigger risks

Some of our interviewees have a home, sometimes shared with a non-consuming family, but the majority of our interviewees does not have a permanent home. Most of them live in uncertain housing conditions for years; stay at homeless shelters, friends’ places, squat cellars and attics, use the sleeping accommodations of drug services or sleep on the street.

In the emo-maps, the participants sketch sleeping accommodations often decentralized and at the edges of the paper, which indicates a peripheral location in the city, but also a minor role in the lived spaces. They use these places mainly to sleep and are not willing or allowed to stay there during daytime. The housing situation is very stressful for most of the drug users and influences the drug use habits. The interviewees describe an increase of drug consumption with each step towards precarity. Martin, a 36-year-old drug user from Munich, outlines the situation in the homeless shelter where he stays as unbearable and links this situation to his (increase of) drug use:

„So it‘s… you won‘t make it without being high. I don‘t know anyone who doesn‘t drink or blaze or take other stuff.“ (Martin, 30, Munich)

Consuming in safe spaces such as home or shelter, is generating mixed feelings due to the transgression and the perceived risk of eviction. Drug use is also the reason for homelessness following the separation from partners and families; following economic issues becoming legal – lack of payment, stay in jail; following the move to the big city (sometime from abroad) where drugs and harm reduction facility are available.

All interviewees pointed out the importance of having a private home – not only because the loss of a home or a shelter drives drug users to more vulnerability and to an increase in drug us – nevertheless just few of them do have a home. The anxieties about precarious housing situations are due to the fact that drug consumption causes a high vulnerability, endangering social relationships, but also disqualifying one for the public services of housing help. Drug use leads to the exclusion from housing market and social housing, where the pressure of competition and normalisation just considers the most adjusted, well earning and healthy inhabitants. The urban housing policies play a role in the inaccessibility. Access to an own private space is denied, and marginalised drug users are left to make their life in public spaces, throughout the public spaces of the city. These results stress one more time the relevance of “housing first” programs and experimentations.

Urban security policies: containment out of public spaces

However, public spaces are not quiet places of happiness for marginalised drug users. Within the routine of making money, buying drugs, consuming, encounters with particular institutions such as the police and traffic controllers make up the lived spaces of marginalised drug users. Places, which are known to be hotspots of police surveillance and repression (because of drug dealing and use), are avoided as much as possible. As Alf (27, Berlin) puts it:

“From my point of view, they [the police] bother… Then comes the whole confiscation stuff… that’s, off again, collecting bottles, working… Evictions… when they see you again in the next 48 hours, they take you with them… From my point of view it is harassment”.

He again, as an answer to the question “Are there places where you never go?”

“Mainly where there is the police! I don’t want to have to do anything with them… There are places where they always go through and drive through, such as Kotti, Hermannplatz, Ku’damm, etcetera…”

Our interviewees report experiencing hostility from institutions, not only because they would “do their job”, but mainly because of repeated experiences of humiliation and violence. Users also experience hostility (as threats and aggressions) from inhabitants of while hiding in staircases, cellars and attics in which one hide for consumption. The avoidance of such public and private places influences their mobilities in the one’s very own neighbourhood and shapes their representation of the city that is made of hostile public or private places.

Police controls significantly structure movements and mobility of drug users in the lived space. With “junky jogging”, drug users in Munich describe the daily routine of getting evicted from one public place and moving collectively to another, until control and banishment start over again. It reinforces the experience of being not a proper part of the “civil society”, as several interviewees from Munich pointed out.

In lack of a private home, drug users often have no alternative then staying in public places. Each city has a geography of police interventions towards marginalised people in general and drug users in particular. Intensively controlled neighbourhoods are particularly the one going through gentrification processes. Harm reduction concepts rely on the acceptance by public stakeholders of the consumption from illegal substances, thus initiating a shift from the previous repressive policing, we observe that systematic police repression persists. In public places they are targeted by police repression and often suppressed. Police harassment is not due to the owning of small amounts of illegal substances, but to the mere presence of marginalised people in some urban areas. This policing marginalises and disempowers even more drug users, whose right to the privacy as well as right to the city are not respected.

Urban Healthcare: at risk of discrimination

Our interviewees have often to deal with healthcare services, such as general medicine, emergency services particularly in case of overdoses or injuries and hospital departments in case of detoxification treatment. These encounters happen regularly, depending from health issues and from the possession of a health insurance. It is one of the situations where consumers feel vulnerable, because then, they need help and feel helpless. Some interviewees explained the many difficulties they encountered in interaction with health system. One big difficulty is to become real access to the cure and treatment of addiction they would need: they are led to wander from institutions to institutions, whereas their vulnerability increase, their confidence decreases and their drug consumption raises. Another is the discrimination they experience in interaction with health institutions. Anna, 22, in Berlin told about her experiences:

“When the ambulance came, and I have to hear from the paramedic “shit junkies!” and derogative comments… when I cry because of my suicide attempt and they say – I shouldn’t cry but pull myself together, that’s not a big deal – because they don’t understand it [drug addiction], because they didn’t get a proper training… It was fast everywhere the same. I’m glad that here [in DCR] it’s not like that… I would never end up in here [shows drawn consumption places on the map] when things would have gone better there [shows drawn ambulance on the map], when the paramedic would have been different from the beginning.”

While there are lots programs dedicated to detox treatment, it is an obstacle course to have access to them. Treatment was not accessible to Anna as she sought for it in the beginning of her addiction, because she wasn’t “junkie enough” at this time. Drug users refer mostly to the places of healthcare with negative feelings: it belongs to the urban places and situation they avoid.

Exclusion from the city

Drug research showed how illegalisation, tabooing, and moralising of some substances and their consumptions foster social exclusion of some drug user groups. The individualisation of personal vulnerabilities – such a social isolation or psychological issues – fails to point the production of both isolation and interpersonal violence in neoliberal times and to record the failure of the social and medical system to address these issues. In this theoretical perspective, drug use leads to social exclusion (Becker 1973) – exclusion from social relationships, from the work market, from sufficient healthcare, and stable housing. Exclusion expresses spatially, as more places become inaccessible, because of a lack of financial resources, economic capital, body and physical appearances, willingness to conform as soon as one does not fit any more to the roles of each space. The almost impossible access to private or semi-private spaces, the permanent eviction back to public spaces are also examples of socio-spatial exclusion.

“I didn’t really inject for three years, and I do it again for six weeks. Probably because all the things that come together”

said Evelyn (28, Berlin), referring to her eviction from accompanied housing, living now in a shelter.

In its turn, spatial exclusion deprives marginalised drug users from access to determinant resources. The public spaces appropriated by marginalised drug users are the last one in which they can stay alive. The interviews showed clearly how each step toward more socio-spatial exclusion was a step towards more consumption


In a German context where harm reduction policies seem to be unanimously praised and implemented for decades, the emo-mapping interviews showed how broad the harms and damages remain. On the one hand, harm reduction is too short to cover the needs of marginalised persons. On the other hand, marginalisation, fostered by housing, security, health and also transport policies fosters consumption and helplessness. Basic rights of marginalised drug users are ignored by powerful policies which makes out of the city a very adverse space for their everyday survival. They don’t belong to any – private or public place – except some DCRs or similar facilities, are the only places where they may belong to, as they are.

Thus, drug policies cannot be fully understood and evaluated without considering the broader policies – here, urban policies. Harm reduction policies cannot solve, by themselves, the needs created by a economic inequalities, neoliberal policies and systemic discriminations. Emo-mapping semi-directed interviews allow to understand the space of the city as appropriated by individualities, social groups but also as place of conflicts and adversity between different actors. It draws a complex picture of the urban spaces, between policies and individual existences. Emo-mapping allows also to listen to experience and emotions, telling where one is (un)wanted, welcomed or tolerated; where one finds the own way of doing, being, and finding interstitial places – and thus, questioning the right to the city.

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