Controlling the narrative - how defining problems and framing causal stories of harm leads to immutable policy institutions

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Controlling the narrative: how defining problems and framing causal stories of harm leads to immutable policy institutions

By Francis Pouliot

Posted April 5, 2020.

I graduated the M.A. Public Policy from King’s College London in 2012, and the following essay was my dissertation thesis. This essay focuses on the prohibition of cannabis as a case-study and covers the institutionalization of public policy. However, it can and should be applied to a much broader context, such as the Bitcoin blocksize wars, the so-called “climate emergency” and, more recently, the public responsive to the Covid19 outbreak. The goal of this essay is to help people dissect the different narratives being fed to them by the media.


Since the publication of Erving Goffman’s influential _Frame Analysis _in 1974, the concept of frame as an analytical device in the public policy scholarship has gained tremendous popularity.

Developed as a response to the failures of the major forms of analysis, particularly the models of decision making centred around instrumental rationality, framing is about understanding how the way individuals make sense of complex political realities affects their decision making process. Ultimately, it is about making sense of the intersubjective nature of social experience and how it might affect the formulation of policy problems and the decision making process for solutions.

By focusing primarily on how political communication affects public opinion at the agenda setting stage of the policy cycle, we believe the explanatory powers of framing have been underexploited.

Moreover, framing remains to this day a “scattered concept”, from which no unifying analytical framework has managed to surface. We argue that framing provides a powerful explanation of the long-term stability of policies and their apparent immunity from change. We are concerned primarily with explaining the resistance of policies from critical evaluations and lack of bargaining and negotiating between the political actors advocating for policy change and the ones promoting the status quo.

The policy process can be conceived as an ongoing conflict between different interpretations of policy problems, in which actors attempt to make their definition of a particular problem the dominant one.

Policies, we argue, are embodiments of causal theories about how a problem will be solved. Problems, on the other hand, are construed in a political setting according a particular interpretation of the mechanism by which harm is inflicted from one set of individuals to another.

The existence of a policy is only justifiable to the extent that the mechanism by which it aims to solve the problem reflects the dominant definition of what the problem is and how it is brought about. When a frame becomes dominant, it limits the scope of acceptable solutions according to the criteria by which the problem is defined.

The purpose of this research is to elaborate an analytical framework from the concept of framing that can be used to identify the different frames present in a policy area, in a way that highlights why they are incompatible with each other. This will enable us to understand how framing can explain the long-term stability of existing policies.

The method by which the framework will be elaborated is by reviewing the different conceptions of framing and assessing their conceptual strengths and weaknesses. A conception of framing that centers around the construction of policy problems according to their causal interpretation will be argued to be the most conceptually adequate.

The new framework proposed by this research shows to which degree compromise between frames is possible and what precise characteristics of frames make them incompatible with others. The framework has been conceived as a hierarchical set of three mutually exclusive axioms of dichotomic value.

The fundamental causal story is the central novel axiom this research developed which combines the unanimously recognized criteria of frames and problem definitions, causality, with a new variable, the causal direction of harm. Not only does this axiom highlight how the frame supposes harm is being created, it clearly makes the distinction between harm created by individual behavior and harm created by policies.

The second axiom this research created was dubbed the precautionary approach to harm. The usefulness of this axiom is that it combines a vague and general criterion, the precautionary principle, and the perception of the substance of cannabis. This allows the framework to identify the specific explanation that frames imply for the justification of government control of cannabis.

The third axiom this framework uses is the criterion of intent of the harm creators. This research has argued that the normative criterion of intent is not sufficient to separate frames that otherwise share the first and second axioms to a degree that they will not support the same policy. Indeed, the perceived intent of the harm creators may lead the frame to support different policy goals, or may lead advocates of the frame to use a different rhetoric, but it will not lead to a change substantial enough to be considered a rupture of stability.

This framework will enable the analyst to identify the particular elements of problem definitions that make them incompatible with each other. This research will argue that long-term stability of policies will occur when the scope of political conflict is constrained by an institutionalized agreed upon problem definition to which the current policy is the only possible solution. To demonstrate how the framework can be used as an analytical device, we will apply it to the policy making process of the U.K.’s drug policy towards cannabis.

We will conclude that conflict in this policy area is limited between two competing frames, the Health and Safety and Harm Reduction frames, both of which define cannabis related social problems in a way that implies that prohibition is the only acceptable solution.


Many models of decision making that could explain the apparent non-rational behavior of actors in policy controversies have been developed. A large number of these models, according to Dye, assist us in understanding “why is the policy making not a more rational process”? Answering this fundamental question, Herbert Simon came up with the concept of bounded rational. It argues that individual choice “takes place in an environment of ‘givens’ — premises that are accepted by the subject as bases for his choice; and behavior is adaptive only within the limits set by these ‘givens’”. These “givens” frame the process of choice, and individuals operating without this “bounded rationality” are motivated by “satisficing, rather than maximising”, which means that they make decisions which are not derived from an examination of all the alternatives. On a larger scale, the rationality of the policy process is also bounded by such constraints. Understanding the nature of these constraints and the mechanism by which they limit the rationality of the policy process is fundamental goal of this research.

According to Rochefort and Cobb, the primary constraint on rational decision making in policy is “the intersubjective nature of social experience and its impact both on issue initiation and policy formulation”. This refers to the inability of different individuals to perceive, understand and make sense of the otherwise same objective reality. People experience the world through a lens, an organised system of belief, perception and appreciation, according to which they assign meaning to events, issues and occurrences. This “lens” is what has become commonly referred to as a frame.

The origin of frames can be traced to the concept of “schema”. Following major developments in neurology and psychology regarding the perception of stimuli and experiences by the human mind, notably from Henry Head’s Studies in Neurology (1920), _the german Gestalt Psychology school and Jean Piaget’s _The Language and Thought of the Child, the concept of schema emerged as a way of explaining how information, either as physical stimuli or social experience, is organized and managed by the human mind. Frederic Barlett used this concept to develop his theory memory as being constructive rather than consisting of the storage. From this follows the idea that an individual “has an overmastering tendency simply to get a general impression of the whole; and, on the basis of this, he constructs the probably detail”. The schemata, or frame, can be conceived as on organized set of criteria, much like a template, which guides how individuals fill the blanks.

The concept of the schema transcends scientific borders and derives its usefulness in the social sciences because the perception of the world is not an individual affair. It a great society, it is practically impossible to have such a proximity to an issue that we have all the information necessary to form an opinion, let alone all political issues. Instead, we receive information about the world primarily through communication with others and not through stimuli form our own senses. As human communication is primarily conveyed through language, the way that a phenomenon is talked about, that is the particular language used in the discourse surrounding that phenomenon, can influence how people come to think about it. Consequently, language that describes social problems can be manipulated tactically by actors of the policy process in order to influence how people view these problems, and potentially what solutions to these problems they will come to accept as adequate. This idea is eloquently expressed by Murray Eldeman in Constructing the Politcal Spectacle:

“The critical element in political maneuver for advantage is the creation of meaning: the construction of beliefs about events, policies, leaders, problems, and crises that rationalize or challenge existing inequalities. The strategic need is to immobilize opposition and mobilize support. While coercion and intimidation help to check resistance in all political systems, the key tactic must always be the evocation of interpretation that legitimize favoured courses of action and threaten or reassure people as to encourage them to be supportive or to remain quiescent […] It is language about political events, not the events in any other sense, that people experience; even developments that are close by take their meaning from the language that depicts them. So political language is political reality; there is no other so far as the meaning of events to actors and spectators is concerned”

From a policy process perspective, the use of framing as an analytical device can be traced back to sociologist Erving Goffman, who defined frames as a principle of organization “which governs the subjective meaning we assign to social events”. Von Gorp characterizes frames as organization principles that transform fragmented information into a meaningful whole, thereby selecting some parts of reality and omitting others. In media, a frame is “the central organizing idea for news content that supplies a context and suggest what the issue is through the use of selection, emphasis, exclusion and elaboration”. McCombs defines frames as the dominant perspective use to organize news presentations and personal thoughts about objects, delimited as a special sets of attributes about that object. Gamson and Modigliani argue that every policy issue has a culture, perpetuated by a discourse, which provides interpretative interpretations or packages. At the core of the package, they say, is a central organizing idea, the frame, that makes sense of events and suggest what is at issue. Schön and Rein describe framing as “a way of selecting, organizing, interpreting, and making sense of a complex reality to provide guideposts for knowing, analyzing, persuading and acting. A frame is a perspective from which an amorphous, ill-defined, problematic situation can be made sense of and acted on”. There is thus a shared understanding that frames are essentially ordering devices.

Initially, framing was developed to explain the disproportionate prominence of certain items on the political agenda relative to their observable importance, usually determined by the degree of harm to society they caused. It remains to this day one of the major theories of agenda setting. It was subsequently observed that the prominence of certain attributes of these issues and the way they were described had an effect of decision making. Robert Entman, in his 1993 essay Framing: Towards Clarification of a Fracture Paradigm, attempted to bring together the different conceptualizations of framing, in order to synthesize its disparate usage and construct a theory of political communication, by making explicit common tendencies. His synthesis of frames and framing has become somewhat of a standard definition. He defines the process of framing as “to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation”.


Entman’s four functions of framing — problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and treatment recommendation — are described as being independent of each other. He explicitly states that a frame may or may not perform these functions simultaneously. The methodology he proposes for analyzing political discourse involves assessing its different aspects according to these four functions. It makes the task of identifying the frames difficult, for it may lead to treat different aspects of a frame that perform different functions as distinct frames. For instance, arguments proposing moral evaluation or causal interpretation, while in reality being inextricably linked, may be analyzed as different frames. Moreover, there is also no frame that does not, either tacitly or overtly, imply some form of treatment recommendation: the cognitive and normative interpretation of a policy problem determine what should be done and how it can be done. In order to have a parsimonious and clear framework to identify frames and their distinct components, it is preferable to limit frames to the problem definition that they support.

Problem definition is a concept that has been developed on its own, without reference to framing, to the extent that it is now a very developed policy concept. Hogwood and Gunn provide us with an excellent definition of the concept from a public policy standpoint:

problem definition is “the process by which an issue (problem, opportunity or trend), having been recognized as such and placed on the policy agenda, is perceived by various interested parties; further explored, articulated, and possibly quantified; and in some but not all cases, given an authoritative or a least provisionally acceptable definition in terms of its likely causes, components and consequences”

The policy process is driven first and foremost by the recognition of a problem. The idea that some things are problematic and they can be fixed by human intervention is the most basic rationale of policy-making. Invariably, policy aims at the modification of human behavior. In the natural world, occurrences are “unintended, unoriented, unanimated, unguided, ‘purely physical’”. While we may understand the causation that leads to these occurrences, they are beyond the realm of policy because they cannot be subjected to human control. As causation in the natural world can be viewed as “a sequence of events by which one thing leads to another”, events in the social world are the product of human behavior driven by will. Most importantly, human behavior and will can be altered through policy, making it possible to prevent things from happening or to make them happen. All policies are based on a set of beliefs about how their activities are expected to bring about the desired change. They aim preventing occurrences deemed undesirable from happening either by modifying the undesirable status quo resulting from the “natural” behavior of actors or by rectifying modifications of behavior caused by other government interventions. In other words, policies not only aim at influencing behavior for the purpose of fixing problems: they are theories about the nature of problems, their solutions, and appropriate intervention.

Problems, then, are frames applied to issues and conditions. The existence of a policy is justifiable to the extent that the problem definition that it implies is the agreed upon definition. The long-term stability of a policy is caused by the ability of its advocates to promote a particular definition, and they do so via the process of framing. This highlights the idea that framing is a means, and not an end in itself: the ultimate role of the frame is to push forth a new policy or maintain stability for an existing one. March and Olsen’s influential study Ambiguity and Choice in Organization provides a clarification of this point. According to them, an organization, in our present case the government, “is a collection of choices looking for problems […], solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work”.

The ability to include or exclude issues in the policy process, and to make their definition stick, has been described by Schattschneider as “the supreme instrument of power”.

Similarly, James Jones argued that “whosoever initially identifies a social problem shapes the initial terms in which it will be debated”. From conflict approach, social conflict is a process of competing problem definitions thriving for domination. Gusfield’s notion of problem ownership emphasizes that individuals or groups that defined the problem do so in order to claim the situation as their exclusive domain of action. (1981, p. 10–11)

Problem definition itself inherently performs the three functions of framing at the same time. Moreover, problem definition is the most important aspect of framing, for it is the element that provides the internal logic of the frame and justifies its existence. The normative and symbolic aspects of the frame are derivatives of the problem definition, because problem definition identifies first and foremost who is to blame. While the overall “image” of problem definition, the frame, can be manipulated strategically to be more sensible to different audiences at a given time, its internal logic is provided by the problem definition. Thus the only function we need to analyse is problem definition, and we can refer to the framing of a policy issue as “problem framing”. Not only does this not take away any of framing’s explanatory as an analytical model, it enables us to focus on explaining stability and change in a policy area. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, when analysing the stability of a policy, we are first and foremost concerned in explaining its continuing existence, that is, the absence of termination or radical change. A policy will usually be terminated if the problem it is meant to solve has been solved or when it is not perceived any longer as solving the problem. Thus if the definition of the problem that justified the policy changes, the policy is bound to change as well.

The simplicity of problem definition, as opposed to Entman’s framing, enlightens us on the concept of discursive affinity. As Maarten Hajer suggests, a single frame may produce a plethora of arguments, or what he calls discursive clusters. These arguments “are held together by discursive affinity: arguments may vary in origin but still have a similar way of conceptualizing the world”. We consider problem definition to have the same effect. The concept of frame is usually understood in symbolic and linguistic terms, where objects, issues or individuals are stereotyped and presented in a biased manner. There can be two radically different normative presentations an issue which are actively debated on equally normative terms, but if they share a common problem definition, it matters not which side of the normative debate wins: if they share the same cognitive appreciation of what the problem, normative or symbolic differences will only result in marginal differences of the same policy.


A major conceptual problem of Entman’s conception of framing is his account of how frames affect the policy process, which is a problem this research has discovered to be similar in most of the framing literature, a conclusion shared by Rocherfort and Cobb which identify the lack of a clear relationship between problem definition and policy outcomes as a major gap in the study of problem definition. As a communications scholar, Entman was most preoccupied by understanding the shaping of public opinion towards particular policies through frames conveyed by the media. Most of his work tacitly assumes that stability and change are caused by fluctuations in public opinion. Moreover, he focused a lot of his work on support for new foreign policies, and his framework is more suited for explaining support for new policies than the stability of long-lasting existing policies. Entman, as well as Edelman and McCombs, take in this Walter Lippman’s concept of “the picture in our heads”, which argues that the public will adopt the dominant frame suggested by the media, which will steer public opinion to favour policy solutions that fit that frame. In light of public opinion polls and of the sizable mobilization of the reform movement concerning the legal status of cannabis, we cannot assume that the public has overwhelmingly adopted the frame that supports prohibition.

Maarten Hajer stresses the fact that “social constructs do not ‘float’ in the world; they can be tied to specific actors and institutions. If a discourse is successful — that is to say, if many people use it to conceptualize the world — it will solidify into an institution, sometimes as organizational practices, sometimes in traditional ways of reasoning”. He argues that there are two conditions a frame has to fulfill in order to become dominant. First, it has to dominate the discursive space. The discursive space is the forum whose members have legitimate control of the policy process intellectual output has influence on the decision-making process. Secondly, the frame has to be reflected in the institutional practice of the policy domain. The policy process is conducted according to the logic of the frame, and that logic is perpetuated by institutions that have adopted it.

While the relationship between frames and institutions has been hinted at by framing and problem definition scholars, it has never been formally made explicit. A recurrent theme is the ability of frames to penetrate and influence institutions, as the ability of institutions to promote and advocate for their own frame. This point has been ably demonstrated by Janet Weiss in her 1989 study of government paperwork policies in America. At the heart of the political conflict is the struggle to promote a problem definition, that struggle is conducted mostly at the institutional level. She identifies three roles of problem definition. First, as the overture to the political process, a particular problem definition makes it possible to promote policies which, under other definitions, would seem odd and irrelevant. It enables for a policy to be considered. Secondly, problem definition has the ongoing power of shaping the dynamic relationship between intellectual understanding the formation of institutions. A problem definition does not “stick” on its own, it must penetrate the institutional arrangement in such a way as to be embodied as a pattern of normal though and behavior across different policy communities. Through this institutionalisation, a problem definition gains a sense of normalcy around which common ground can be achieved between different factions.

Problem definitions succeed when their adherence becomes a requirement to participation in the political process.

Finally, problem definition is a policy outcome in its own right. As it creates a particular language for talking about issues and as it creates responsibility for problems, it puts some groups on the offensive and others on the defensive and mobilises support around the symbols it highlights. It does not only penetrate existing institutions, it becomes an institution.

Scholars of problem definition have recently started to shift their attention to the institutional mechanisms by which frames become dominant. Hoffman and Ventresca, in analysing the institutional framing of the environment v.s. economy debate, argue that “institutions […] are centreal in the basic framing of policy issues such as the environment and economics relationship. Institutions present normative and contextual constraints that alter individual and organizational perspectives on relevant issue”. According to Scott (1995), there are three possible characteristics of institutions: regulative, normative and cognitive. The regulative aspect refers to the ability of institutions to create legal sanctions without a democratic process for reasons of expedience. The normative aspect of institutions refers to their ability to make moral judgement to which actors in the policy process will comply. Cognitive aspects refer to “the collective constructions of social reality via language, meaning systems, and other rules of classifications embodied in public activity”. According to Zucker (1983), the cognitive aspects explain the taken-for-granted beliefs that organisations will follow out of convention, habit, risk-aversiveness or some sense of obligation. The normative and cognitive aspects of institutions bear a striking resemblance to the normative and causal functions of problem definition. A frame’s embodiment in an institution not only provides normative guidance for actors to make moral judgements and cognitive guidance for actors to develop causal interpretations of complex realities, but when the institution in question has legitimate control of the policy making process, it has the ability to enshrine them into law through regulatory decisions. Meyer and Rowan (1977) conceptualise the output of institutions as “rationalized building blocks” in the form of recognized structures, policies and practices available for decision makers in the decision making process. They thus perpetuate and solidify frames through time. They legitimize cognitive biases by using education, advice or coercion, by providing an authoritative base for the definition of policy problems, norms of appropriate policy actions and regulatory frameworks that create incentives for particular decision making outcomes.


Most of the research on identifying different problem definitions derives from Deborah Stone’s interpretation of problem definition as the elaboration of a causal story for harm. The intent of her framework being similar to the one proposed in this research, categorizing potential problem definitions to predict their likely policy outcome and strategic use, we will start by reviewing her framework. We will correct what we perceive to be the flaws of her framework by proposing our own.

Stone describes problem definition as

“a process of image making, where the images have to do fundamentally with attributing cause, blame and responsibility […] Political actors deliberately portray [conditions] in ways calculated to gain support for their side. And political actors, in turn, do not simply accept causal models that are given from science or popular culture or any other source. They compose stories that describe harms and difficulties, attribute them to actions of other individuals or organizations, and thereby claim the right to invoke government power to stop harm”.

Causal stories have an empirical or cognitive dimension: they are a hypothesis of the mechanism by which harm is created by human behavior. But they also have a normative dimension; they assign different degrees of blame to certain individuals for causing harm according to their intention. Taken together, these attributes of causal stories justify policies in terms of their desirability as well as their appropriateness or effectiveness. According to Stone, causal stories can be distinguished according to two axioms: the purpose of the perceived harm creator’s actions and the intent or and the intent of the action’s consequences. These two axioms create a framework in which four causal story templates are established: accidental, mechanical, inadvertent and intentional. With each of these causal stories, a particular ligc that guides policy is implied.

As it stands, we consider Stone’s framework to be inadequate to the study of drug policy for two main reasons. The first is the lack of an axiom that distinguishes between policies aiming at correcting naturally occurring human behavior, meaning human behavior that is not substantially modified by the current policy arrangement, and policies aiming at correcting perceived policy failures, or at least at modifying or replacing the current policy arrangements. We call this causal direction of harm. Combined with the mechanism by which harm is brought about, it creates what this research dubs the fundamental causal story. The direction of the causality of harm is mentioned in her framework, but it is done in a trivial and anecdotic manner: it is only mentioned that causal stories can be applied to both individual behavior or policies. For instance, the difference between intentional causes and inadvertent causes which both would consider the current policy to be the source of the problem would be that, under intentional cause, the policy would be considered a deliberate conspiracy and, under inadvertent causes, the policy would be considered to have unintended consequences. Because causal direction is not clearly conceived as a defining characteristic along which an additional axiom can be derived, her categories are not mutually exclusive.

The second problem is that the distinction between accidental and mechanical causal stories is not particularly useful for drug policy. Stone proposes that causal politics is “centrally concerned with moving interpretations of a situation from the realm of accident to one of the three realms of control”, which are mechanical, intended and inadvertent causes. As discussed earlier, policy aims at the modification of behaviour, thus for an issue to be considered as a political problem, human action must be present as an element in the causation of harm. Thus, at minimum, accidental causes must be given some kind of intent and be brought into mechanical causes for policy intervention to be possible. Mechanical causes usually refer to machines, trained animals, “brainwashed people”, or any form of intervening agent, that bring about someone’s will indirectly. The intervening agent is the cause of harm, but it bears no responsibility for intent. The consequence is intended, although the action that brings about that consequence is done by the proxy of the agent. The central tenant of the mechanical cause being the inanimate or animate intervening agent, “things that have no will of their own but are designed, programmed, or trained by humans to produce consequences”, we face a predicament about the classification of causal stories relating to drugs and drug policy. Indeed, the particularity of drugs, and especially naturally occurring drugs such as cannabis, is that they are inherently intervening agents. Drug related harms which justify policy intervention are almost exclusively portrayed as having drugs themselves being the intermediary agents, or the primary source of harm. Similarly, natural drugs do not cause any harm unless they are an intervening agent in a causal relationship: usually, they cause harm only when they are consumed. This distinction is important in the strategic framing of policy problems: problems that have to do with “natural” phenomena must be framed as mechanical cause if the invocation of government power is to be justified. However, because the human element of consumption is an inevitable part of drug related problems, the possibility of control is inherent. The criteria of the possibility of control is thus of no use to this research.

Additionally, she describes the main focus of mechanical causation as defining the “exact nature of human guidance or control”, but the criteria for assessing that nature seem to be regarding the intent rather than guidance. She herself highlights this by using the case of malnutrition as examples of two mechanical causal stories that differ on the degree of human guidance. The “liberal” story would argue that people are not aware of the consequences of eating junk food, the intervening agent that brings about harm, or eat junk food as an unavoidable consequence of dealing with a limited budget. The “conservative” story would argue that people know the consequences of malnutrition but actively decide to pursue it anyway. This research argues that this distinction is not fundamentally different than the one caused by a difference in intent. The mechanical causal story is not mutually exclusive with the inadvertent and intentional causal stories.

It is not surprising to see that the categories are so permeable with each other. Stone’s argument rests on the fact that problem definitions are used in a strategic manner to push blame and responsibility onto somebody else and to challenge existing distributions of power and resources. Problems definitions, under that conception, are not constraints for rational decision making but instruments to further a group’s interests. She claims that, “in the struggle over problem definitions, the side will seek to stake out the strong positions but will often move into one of the weaker position”. Regardless of whether the move from intentional to inadvertent causality is out of strategic considerations or because of genuine intellectual change, it remains that these two categories are too permeable to justify the characteristic deadlock of drug policy. The permeability of categories with each other, as well as the lack of a clear axiom for the causal direction, can be resolved by considering these criteria of problem definition as separate levels of problem definition.


In order to understand how the stability of drug policy is achieved in the U.K., we need to identify the different frames present in that policy area. As stated above, we will use problem definition as the defining element of the frame. The explanatory power of our model rests on the idea that the causal categories mutually exclusive. To show why frames are impermeable to one another, we must also identify the smallest common denominator among different frames as the extent to which compromise is possible. In other words, we are looking for the specific differences in problem definition that make their implied policy solutions irreconcilable. The novelty of the analytical framework that we propose is that by using hierarchically organized, mutually exclusive axioms that we believe to be the defining elements of problem definition, we will arrive at a series of templates for potential problem definitions of any given issue. Policies being the solution that naturally evolves from a problem definition, compromise is conceived as the point to which different frames will support a policy while potentially disagreeing on technical aspects such as policy tools. If, in any given policy area, conflict is limited to frames that nevertheless imply the same policy logic, policy stability will occur.

To do so, our model is supported by three axioms: fundamental causal story, precautionary approach towards cannabis and intent of the harm creators. The axioms are hierarchically organized according to their priority. This enables us to achieve categories that are mutually exclusive while also identifying a possibility of three levels where distinctions between frames can be made. Our model is visually represented in Table 1. The model is to be read vertically. The three axioms are represented on the left: the first one is fundamental causal story, the second one is precautionary approach towards cannabis and the third one is intent. The criteria for the axioms are presented corresponding horizontally aligned boxes: the fundamental causal story is determined by the causal direction of harm. The precautionary approach is divided as either weak or strong, and the intent is divided as either intentional or inadvertent.

The thick vertical lines represents irreconcilability, while permeability is shown by dotted lines. As Table 1 shows, irreconcilability is present

  1. At the fundamental causal story axiom between the “individuals cause harm” and “prohibition causes harm” categories
  2. At the precautionary approach towards cannabis axiom between the “weak” and “strong” precautionary approaches
  3. At the frame level between frames 1–2, frames 3–4 and frames 5–6, as well as between frames 3–4 and frames 5–6
  4. At the policy response level between each of the policy responses
  5. At the attitude towards current policies level between status quo and reform

Permeability, represented by a dotted line, is shown in Table 1 to be present

  1. At the intent axiom between intentional and inadvertent causes
  2. At the frame level, between frame 1 and frame 2, between frame 3 and 4 and between frame 5 and frame 6
  3. At the attitude towards current policies level between “need for reform” and “reform essential”

Each policy response is compatible with two frames, which highlights that the essential aspects of policy will be determined according to the two first axioms of problem definition. Between the two frames that correspond to a policy response, the permeability means that they will agree on the policy’s logic and objectives, while disagreeing on specific policy tools or rhetorical arguments according to the indent. This highlights the importance this research concedes to correctly identifying frames not solely on the particular policy technicalities or according to the rhetoric or discourse with which it is presented to the public. The permeability between “the need for reform” and “reform essential” means that at this level, there is agreement about the need for reform, albeit to different degrees. This means that frames 3, 4, 5 and 6 can show common ground, at the maximum, in their desire for change.

The reader will note that out of a possibility of 8 problem definitions, only 6 are presented. Indeed, where frames 3 and 4 should theoretically be, we have left the category as void, as well as the policy response that would have corresponded. Our framework is designed, first, for analysing the specific frames related to the regulation of harmful substances or activities, in this particular case cannabis. It is also designed to analyse frames in a policy area where the problem has already been recognized politically and dealt with via a policy, which has remained unchanged for a long period of time. There cannot be any problem definition that has a weak precautionary approach towards cannabis while still concentrating on individuals being source of the problem since the current policy, prohibition, has a strong precautionary approach towards cannabis. These categories are thus inherently self contradicting and are bound to be void, but they are nevertheless portrayed in the framework for the sake of symmetry. While it is possible to concede that these categories may have been filled by frames based on religious or moral principles which might warrant an exception to a weak precautionary principle as a basis for prohibition, the interpretation of problems would be based on beliefs that are inherently irreconcilable with rational argument.

If cannabis was a new drug, thus creating opportunity for new problem definitions in a policy area where the problem has not already been dealt with by a policy, our first axiom would be of little use and would potentially have to replaced by a “cannabis causes social harms” axiom divided by a straightforward yes/no variable. There would nevertheless be void categories in the “individuals do not cause harm” subdivision because it is highly unlikely that a problem definition that supports that no harm is being done would have a strong precautionary approach towards cannabis, provided there is a minimum of intellectual consistency involved. This element is a purposeful addition to our framework in order to accurately reflect the reality of frame conflicts, and we have not so far found any reason to believe that it would consist of a conceptual flaw.

The multi-level structure of the framework

The idea that frames are found on different cognitive levels is not novel. For instance, there is a consensus as to the existence of metaframes and subframes. The difference between frames and metaframes is that a metaframe can be used to give meaning to complex realities that are radically different from each other. To some degree, they are similar to ideologies or strong political principles. For instance, the liberty or security as a principle guiding policy would be a metaframe. Subframes are also mentioned throughout the literature as frames whose differences with each other are not significant enough to be considered as distinct, fully fledged frames while being too great to be considered the same frame. Subframes have for common denominator the central tenants of the frame from which they derive, and distinctions between subframes can be conceived as small normative/cognitive differences that can be easily resolved through negotiation.

The division of ideas, belief systems or schemata is not unique to the concept of framing. Political scientists’ use of ideas, Vivien Schmidt argues, usually occurs at three levels of generalities. She presents the first level, the most specific, as being the actual policies or policy solutions proposed by policy-makers. In this sense, it is the “final” product, the logical conclusion of all previous normative and cognitive processes. The second level is composed of the programmatic ideas that support the policy. She describes these ideas as being, for instance, the underlying assumptions or organizational principles orienting policy, as programmatic beliefs, as policy cores providing sets of diagnosis and prescriptions or as problem definitions. This level determines “define the problems to be solved by such policies; the issues to be considered; the goals to be achieved; the norms, methods, and instruments to be applied; and the ideals that frame the more immediate policy ideas proposed to solve any given problem”. The third level of generality refers to public philosophies, public sentiments or deep core beliefs underlying the policy and programmatic ideas, such as basic values, the nature of knowledge, the human condition, fundamental economic theories, etc.

Paul Sabatier and Hank Jenkins-Smith, in developing their influential Advocacy Coalition Framework, have also approached the tripartite belief structure. While this research does not necessarily agree with the composition of functional use of their framework, the belief structure elaborated by Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith is a useful heuristic device that we can learn from in order to identify frames and their precise characteristics that make them irreconcilable with each other. Their tripartite structure can be thought of as being divided according to capacity of the beliefs to resist change. The deep core beliefs are highly unlikely to change, akin to religious conversion. Of the characteristics of such beliefs that Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith, the ones are the most resonant to our understanding of problem definition and frames are: the relative priority of various ultimate values such as freedom, security and knowledge and the basic criteria of distributive justice such as whose welfare counts the most and the relative weights of the self, primary groups, all people and future generations. This is similar to the concept of metaframe. The major difference between the ACF and this research’s framework is that latter does not use deep core beliefs on their own as a criterion, but rather the application of deep core beliefs towards a particular issue. For instance, a precautionary approach to regulatory policy would, in theory, be a sufficient deep core belief. However, there may be inconsistencies when the precautionary principle is applied to different issues: actors may have different precautionary approaches towards weapons, pollution, bio-medicine, technology and drugs. Some actors can have a considerably negative perception of drugs while still adopting weak precautionary regulatory policy making in general, while others have strong precautionary approach to regulation in general but simply do not believe that cannabis is harmful at all.

What this researcher wishes to incorporate from the ACF is the hierchihcal order it assumes. The policy core beliefs are somewhat less likely to change and comprise the overall seriousness of the problem, the basic cause of the problem and the ability of society to solve problems. They argue that although the deep core beliefs are held stronger, it is in fact the policy core beliefs that are the “glue” that holds coalitions together. When policy core beliefs are in dispute, the lineup of opponents and allies tends to be stable for over decades. A coalition’s consensus on issues relating to the policy core are stronger than consensus over secondary aspects. Actors will give up secondary aspects before giving up policy core beliefs. In our framework, this correspond to the first axiom, the fundamental causal story. This research also uses the same distinction between major and minor changes to policy as the ACF. Minor changes, according to Sabatier, are constituted by changes in the secondary aspects of policy beliefs, which corresponds to this research’s concept of permeability between the “intent” criteria of frames and their different implications for policy tools or policy rhetoric while nevertheless implying the same policy logic. Secondary aspects are indeed the ones that are up for negotiation between coalitions include notably the various importances of causal factors in specific locales. While Sabatier states that major change occurs at the policy core level, this research believes that major change is also determined at the second axiom, the precautionary approach, of the same nature of metaframes and deep core beliefs. So while the major changes towards status quo operate at the first axiom, the second axiom also represents major changes between the options for reform.

First axiom: fundamental causal story

The causal stories describe the nature of the causal argument as a cognitive interpretation of a relationship of harm. First and foremost, causal stories assign blame by identifying the origin of harm. Because we are attempting to create templates of problem definition, it is of little importance, at this stage, to specify exactly what type of individuals cause harm how the categories of harm creators are defined. We are also looking to identify how problem definitions relate to each other by starting with the greatest common denominator to the smallest. We believe that the greatest division between problem definitions is whether the problem is caused by a policy or by the behavior of individuals. Although in different framing and problem definition frameworks the fundamental causal interpretation of how the problem is brought about is interpreted or used in different ways, there is overwhelming unanimity as to its importance. Entman, Gamson and Modigliani, Eldelman, Stone, Rocherfort and Cobb all emphasize that the basic cognitive interpretation of causality that people assign to issues and conditions is the defining factor that determines what policy they will be inclined to support. The causal direction axiom enables us to distinguish between personal and impersonal causes when facing long-lasting policies. Indeed, the traditional conflict between impersonal and personal causes is one of the defining characteristic between conservative and liberal approaches which propose radically different solutions to any given problem. Normally, impersonal causes have to do with culture, socio-economic structure and environment as factors that determine human behavior. When a policy has been in effect for a long period of time, one cannot refer to the time before the policy for comparison for the data is unavailable or so distant that it is irrelevant. In this case, impersonal causes are attributed to the incentive structure and policy culture that determines human behavior, in opposition to personal causes that blame individuals and does not take into account the distorting effects of the current policy on behavior.

Over time, proponents of a policy will present it as the solution and its implementers as virtuous. Individual actions that cause harm will be depicted as rising in severity and incidence, with a rising proximity towards ordinary citizens, will be presented as crisis or emergencies, with variations of the same problems depicted as novelty that warrants continuing intervention. Policy failures are presented as caused by inadequate funding or partial implementation of the policy which allows individuals to perpetrate harm unchallenged. The debate within that problem definition will be concentrated on the best implementation techniques, introducing innovative strategies, varying the distribution of resources, setting different targets and other technical aspects of policy making.

Compared to the criteria of the other categories, the direction of the relationship is the most powerful. Using this axiom, we can arrive at two positions that are inherently irreconcilable. The first is that individual behavior causes harm to individuals and to society, and that the policy is the solution. The second is that the policy causes harm to individuals and to society, or that individual behavior that causes harm is itself determined by the distorting effects of the policy, and that a replacement policy, or a return to a state of nature, is the solution. The notion of blame, responsibility and who must bear the burden of reform cannot be more radically distinct than between actors who believe that the policy is the problem and the ones that believe the policy is the solution. It also has the analytical advantage of categorizing, first and foremost, problem definitions that call for the maintaining of the status quo and the ones that imply the need for reform.

Second axiom: strength of the prudential approach and the justification of control

Being established that any causal story of drug problems is in the form of mechanical causality, we must identify characteristics of that causality that justify government control of intervening agents, in this case cannabis. Whereas the division between accidental and mechanical causes was about the possibility of control, we are concerned with the justification for control.

The most important criterion in justifying government control is the strength of the precautionary approach to the intervening agent. This involves, first, the acceptance of the precautionary principle of regulatory decision making and, second, that such a principle applies to a particular intervening agent. As a principle of decision making, the precautionary principle is quite recent as it has been primarily articulated for environmental policy since the 1990’s. However, the debate surrounding the need for precaution and towards what issues precaution should apply has always been a fundamental component of regulatory decision making. There are many interpretations of the precautionary principle. The Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle defines it as

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof ”

According to the Healh and Safety Executive, a U.K. non-departmental public body, the purpose of the principle is to establish an impetus to make a decision that seeks to avoid harm where there is scientific uncertainty. The precautionary principle is to be invoked when

  1. There is good reason to believe that harmful effects may occur. “Good reason” can be demonstrated by empirical evidence, analogy to another similar activity or product that which has been show to have substantial risk or by demonstrating a sound theory of how harm may be caused
  2. The level of scientific uncertainty about the consequences or likelihoods of harm resulting from an activity or product is insufficient for confident decision making. Harmful effects can be gauged by factors of severity, irreversibility, uniqueness, incidence, numbers affected and knock-on effects.

More importantly, one of the tenants of the precautionary principle is that the absence of evidence of risk cannot be confused with the evidence of absence of risk. Not only does the burden of proof shift from the regulator to the “hazard creator”, but the hazard creator must be able to prove beyond any doubt that the activity or product is not harmful. Another tenant is the emphasis on the intensity of the consequence, rather than the likelihood, of harm (especially if the harm is irreversible).

There are different degrees of precautionary approaches which have a direct impact on how the problem will be defined. A “weak” approach allows for preventive measures but does not make them a requirement. Evidence of likelihood must be provided along with evidence of intensity of harm. Other factors than scientific uncertainty, such as economic costs, can be invoked. The burden of proof is less categorically imposed to the creators of hazard. A “strong” approach does not take into consideration economic costs, and does not allow for any cost-effectiveness account to affect decision making. It does not take into consideration the likelihood of harm, and assumes the inherent causality of harm of an intervening agent unless proven otherwise.

The nature of the intervening agent and the degree to which it produces harm are aspects of problem definition that reflect the strength of the precautionary approach. For instance, one can accept that the association of a probabilistic harmful outcome to an intervening agent is the demonstration of a cause-and-effect relationship. Emphasis on the irreversibility and destructiveness of the harm, for instance by invoking irreversible schizophrenia as a possible consequence, may also lead actors to accept the precautionary principle towards cannabis. In opposition, emphasis on the low probability of harm and comparison of cannabis to other equally risky products of activities are characteristics of a weak precautionary approach.

Regardless of the causal direction, the degree of the precautionary approach towards the particular intervening agent is the criterion that determines the particular policy to solve a problem. Rocherfort and Cobb have outlined some criteria of the nature of problem definition which we can use to detect the strength of the precautionary approach. Severity of the problem is the most defining aspects, because it allows opponents to have intense disagreements about a so-called objectively recognized problem. Thus a common causal interpretation of the problem can lead to radically different problem definitions. For instance, rival political factions may have the same causal interpretation of global warming, it can be conceived as not severe enough to warrant correctives that may affect economic development or too severe for economic considerations to even be considered, leading to two radically different policy approaches. Incidence is the second defining characteristic of a precautionary approach.

First of all, the relative degree of importance between incidence and severity is a good clue as to whether proponents have a weak or strong precautionary approach, where the latter will emphasize on severity rather than incidence.

Secondly, rising incidence creates pressure for quick public action or justifies continuing government policies. Incidence can measured but is subjected to a mix of politics and available information: the presentation of incidence in absolute or relative terms, as well as the particular causes of rising or declining incidence, allow for different and irreconcilable interpretations of the same objective reality. Incidence can also be located in different population cohorts, with particular emphasis on rising incidence amongst vulnerable populations such as children and minorities carrying more normative weight. Proximity is the third defining characteristic.

Problem definitions always attempt to expand the scope of the problem, thus expanding victimhood to the largest population possible. Personal relevancy is a highly strategic component of problem definitions, as people who feel personally victimised by a problem will have a personal interest in having that problem resolved. In drug related problems, this aspect of problem definition is highly visible. The idea that the harm resulting from personal consumption of drugs is not a personal or family issue but a community or national problem is based on the idea that personal harm trickles down to the rest of society.

Similarly, the idea that prohibition creates harm on the entire national economy and hot only personal hardships to consumers and distributors is a powerful incentive for new policy. Regarding cannabis, the idea that harm, thus risk, is imposed on the whole society makes for a strong precautionary approach. Finally, the presentation of a problem as a “crisis” is a culmination of a rise in severity, incidence and proximity.

Third axiom: normative interpretations of intent

The third criterion of problem definition is the perceived intent of the problem creator. Division at the level of intent will cause disputes as to the appropriateness of the policy tools, but the overall logic of the policy will not be affected by intent: the origin of harm and the precautionary approach towards a particular activity or substance, at this stage, have already determined the policy goals. Intent serves two different functions according to the causal direction of harm. If the problem definition is centered around individuals as the creators of harm, intent will determine what kind of policy tools are appropriate as solutions. If problem definition is centered on the policy as the problem, the intent of policy makers is used as a rhetorical device to promote reform.

According to Schneider and Ingram, “public policy almost always attempts to get people to do things they might not otherwise do; or it enables people to do things they might not have done otherwise”. For a policy to work, they argue, individuals must take action in concert with policy objectives. The intent of the harm creators is understood as the potential rationale of why they may not comply to policy goals. The use of certain policy tools thus depends on the perception of intent behind the harm creator’s actions. Debate surrounding the intent of a harm creator cannot be solved through reason or appeal to evidence, unless the intent is publicly stated.

Teleological fallacies are a strategic device to portray consequences as intentional, because “the person who turns out to have willed the harm while concealing his malevolent intent is a doubly despicable character; the symbolism of the disguised malefactor is a powerful rallying cry” Intentional causes reflect that individual that cause harm are in doing so freely and without constraints on their decision making process. They are aware of the consequences but decide to actively pursue the harmful activity regardless. The infliction of harm is thus a conscious choice. When the consequences are deemed bad, intentional causation is a story of oppressors and victims. The policy tools that assume intentional causation are incentive tools, usually as negative incentives for the pursuit of a harmful activity such as sanctions. Sanctions, in this sense, depend on the belief that individuals have the ability to be deterred, thus that individuals cause harm willfully. Indeed, according to Ingram and Schneider, they imply

“disproportionatly sever penalties for failure to comply […] to extinguish certain kinds of behavior by raising the costs far above the proportional value of the behavior itself through fines, deprivation of life or liberty, or social control techniques”

Inadvertent causation is about unintended consequences or constrained choices. This can describe harmful side-effects of an otherwise well-intended, or at least not explicitly malevolently intend, action or policy. Another criterion for inadvertent causes is constraints on decision making such as lack of information or the presence of incentives to pursue the harmful behavior. For instance, addiction is a powerful account of inadvertent causes of harm, as individual as physically incapable of putting a stop to their harmful behavior. The “gateway drug theory” of cannabis is also an example of inadvertent causes. Assuming that “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin are the most harmful, consumers of cannabis that do not intent to consume hard drugs may find themselves inadvertently getting “hooked” to hard drugs, making it an unconscious decision. Capacity tools that provide information, training, education and resources are likely to be consequences of such an interpretation of intent. Ingram and Schneider call them “capacity tools”, but can also include symbolic tools that aim at re-orienting social cultures that are believed to be constraints on individual decision making. These tools have the same goal as sanctions: preventing an individual behavior with harmful outcomes for happening.


In 1928, after a debate lasting less than five minutes, an amendment adding cannabis to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 is passed in Parliament. However it is labelled, the policy is today essentially as it was back in 1928: the possession, distribution and manufacture of cannabis are prohibited by law. The government’s goal remains the same: reducing, if not eliminating, the consumption of cannabis. The different developments of drug policy have all aimed at making prohibition more efficient, less costly and less harmful. The focus on cannabis is due to the prevalence of its use, being the most popular illicit drug in the U.K., public support for a reform of its legal status and the presence of well-organized social movements for the reform of its legal status.

The specificity of the U.K.’s cannabis policy that makes it an attractive case against which to test our framework is its immunity to be challenged by rational inquiry, critical analysis and reference to factual evidence. It is almost as if any legitimate challenge to it is treated as a curiosity or a mere requirement of democracy, ultimately being rejected on the grounds that it is irrelevant, unfounded or simply “wrong”. There is, a very high amount of critical evaluations of prohibition that present it as a failed policy, argued on the grounds that it is un-implementable, ineffective and producing high net cost to society. The general consensus of critical evaluations is that a large number of drug-related social problems are not solved, and are even caused, by prohibition. The disproportionality of criminal prosecution, the creation of a black market controlled by a violent cartel of drug suppliers and the denial of medicine (medical cannabis) to seriously ill patients, and claims that the prohibition of cannabis and not of alcohol and tobacco is discriminatory towards individuals who enjoy cannabis are common arguments that can be found in the drug policy related discourse. This research will attempt to understand where these arguments stem from, why they are not translated in policy reform and why they are not synthesized in a single movement for reform.

Indeed, another characteristic is the stubbornness of the different policy positions in the debate, as well as their impermeability towards each other. This translates, in practice, by the absence of compromise between, on one hand, proponents of the status quo and reformers and, on the other hand, the different factions that advocate for reform. Three main policies concerning the legal status of cannabis, prohibition, heavy and/or conditional regulation and legalization, are each backed by varying but considerable support from public opinion, advocacy groups and research institutes. It is worth mentioning that a pluralist account of the policy process is also insufficient in explaining the stability of drug policy. While prohibition of cannabis has historically been a generally popular policy, public opinion has gradually shifted to a notable propensity to favor reform. A recent poll shows that 58% of Britons are in favour of a review of drug laws. The same poll indicates that, concerning cannabis, 25% are in favour of some form of decriminalisation and that 20% are in favour of legalisation. Under these circumstances, we would expect, following a pluralist view of politics, that there would at least be a debate in parliament about the possibility of reform or, at least, some kind of compromise.

It is thus surprising that there has little compromise or alliances between the advocates of different policies and, ultimately, no meaningful reform of policy towards marijuana. Regardless of whether it is through mediation, coalition formation using ambiguity or disjointed incremental moves, decision making models that based on a concept of instrumental rationality fail to explain this situation. As framing authors Schön and Rein argue, “if the players of the political game are rational actors, why should some disputes prove stubbornly resistant to settlement by means of bargaining and exchange”?

Frame 1: the Health and Safety frame

The Health and Safety framefundamental causal story is that individual consumption of drugs inherently leads to severe physical and mental health illness harms for the user which imposes costs on society as a whole, as well as direct harms to society in the form of public intoxication and violence. The availability of cannabis is the cause of its consumption, which leads to significant harms to users which trickle down to society. Similarly, producers and distributors of cannabis, by being agents that cause the availability, allow consumers to harm themselves and society while not suffering themselves the costs of their actions. Individual consumers, in their pursuit of pleasure, thus cause harm upon themselves, harm which “trickles” down to their families, communities, and eventually the entire public. The harms in question are, first, physical. Cannabis consumption is believed to cause heart disease, asthma, lung diseases and cancer. The mental health harms are much more severe: acute intoxication, impairment of judgement, loss of psychological and psychomotor performance, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and other psychotic illnesses. These illnesses can cause direct harms to others, particularly the impairment of psychomotor functions that may lead to accidents when operating vehicles or heavy machinery. There is a firm belief that individual consumption inherently creates harms to society, either in the form of economic costs resulting from loss of productivity or healthcare costs or social harms resulting from intoxication either as “breaking down the social fabric of families and communities” or public nuisiance and violent behavior. There is a tacit consensus amongst politicians that there is a causal link between individual consumption of drugs and crime. While cannabis is no longer considered to cause crime, the “gateway drug theory” is used to associate the consumption of cannabis to a later consumption of other drugs, considered hard drugs, which are firmly believed to cause crime. This frame clearly corresponds to our “individuals cause harm” axiom, as there are no mentions of the potential harms of prohibition, which is portrayed as a virtuous enterprise to preserve public health and safety. The precautionary approach is very strong. There is emphasis on the irreversibility and severity of mental illness resulting from consuming cannabis, particularly schizophrenia. This very low probable outcome is, in policy terms, considered to be a indicator of the causality between cannabis and mental illness. There is a strong emphasis on the perceived rising potency of cannabis. This leads to continuous appeals to novelty in which today’s cannabis cannot be compared to previous generation’s cannabis. Skunk, the political term from stronger cannabis, is said to be the now most prevalent type and is considered deadly, which reinforces fears for youth health. The prevalence of skunk is described in terms of “plague” or “scourge”. The burden of proof resides solely on advocates of reform, and there is explicit mention that until it can be proven that cannabis is in fact safe, policy must “err on the side of caution”. As for intent, the consumption of cannabis is conceived to be a conscious choice either resulting from lack of will, inherent deviant personality or lack of disincentives. It is believed that users prefer the pleasure of cannabis to its harms, and that their personal calculs is distorted by the fact that society absorbs a large part of the harm they create (for instance by the provision of healthcare). Any lack of information as to the nature of cannabis’s harms that might affect user behavior is compensated by prohibition, which is deemed to be a message that “if drugs are illegal, it is because they are harmful”. By forcing users to commit a criminal act in consuming cannabis, they become aware that their behavior is wrong and are thus considered to be knowledgeable about the fact that they are creating harm. This is reflected by a unshakeable beliefe about the deterrent effect of the threat of coercion.. Stopping the causal chain of harm means stopping the act of consumption. This is done by two policy tools: coercion as a negative incentive to distort the consumer’s rational calculus by adding disproportionate costs to his activity and coercion of suppliers physically eliminate the supply of cannabis.

Frame 2:the Harm reduction frame

The Harm Reduction frame shares the fundamental causal story of the Health and Safety frame in that it accepts that individual consumption creates harms to the individual which trickles down to society. It also has a precautionary approach, albeit not on the same basis as the Health and Safety frame. It argues that government control is justified not specifically because of the severity or incidence of cannabis consumption and potency, and it does not have the same propensity to associate probable outcome with causation. Rather, it argues for government control to protect the user from the harmful effects of cannabis rather than for the elimination of consumption. In essence, while it implies that cannabis is a harmful substance, it argues that it is rather its misuse that causes the most harm. In this sense, they do not immediately associate cannabis use with cannabis misuse. In any case, government control is justified primarily because it accepts low standards of control of regulation of potentially harmful substances and not on the basis that cannabis is very harmful. What separetes Harm Reduction fromHealth and Safety is that it accepts cannabis consumption as an inescapable fact. This results from a perception of the user’s intent as being inadvertent rather than an intentional pursuit of pleasure.

Consumption is seen as being determined by lack of information, environmental factors that determine the propensity to drug use such as poverty community setting and emphasises on addiction as being a constraint on free choice. This translates in divergence from the Health and Safety frame in the appropriate policy tools. Harm Reduction, while still accepting the need for the reduction of supply and demand, argues that the reduction of supply and demand on its own cannot occur if unaccompanied by capacity policy tools such as training, information and treatment. Because users inadvertently harm themselves and society, they do not have the capacity to act rationally in the face of coercive disincentives. Harm Reduction emphasizes that intentional harm can be located at the supply level rather than at the consumption level, specifically by referring to addiction as a constraint on consumers to change their habits, a constraint which is exploited by drug suppliers. They thus advocate for a enforcement towards supply as a method of reducing demand, thus not having demand reduction as the primary focus of policy.

Accepting drug use as a fact, harm reduction suggests that when provided with accurate drug knowledge and treated as responsible citizens, drug users will behave responsibly and rationally.

When properly informed and respected as a free individual, the drug user will seek to reduce potential harms to him or herself and others.

Frame 3: the Medical Cannabis frame

The Medical Cannabis frame’s fundamental causal story is that the current legal status of cannabis, which is prohibited regardless of its use and is not recognized to have any medical value, causes harm to patients afflicted with illnesses that could be cured or relieved with cannabis consumption. By reducing the problem definition to the scope of medical use, this frame reduces the notion of harm as the deprival of pain alleviation and cures for ill patients. The current policy arrangement classify drugs according to their harm but also according to their clinical use. This implies that the most harmful drugs (Class A) can be legally used in a clinical setting. For instance, opioids, methamphetamine, ketamine and GHB (sometimes labelled the date rape drug) are Class A drugs that are legally available for treatment of patients. While cannabis is believed to help the treatement and recovery of patients suffering from numerous ailments, notably Glaucoma, Multiple Sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, various forms of cancer and opioid dependence. It is also estimated to alleviate pain, nausera and vomiting associated with heavy medical treatments such as chemotherapy and pharmaceutical drug dependence such as insulin. It is also recognized as a pain reliever for minor but painful physical ailments such as back pain and migraines. The precautionary approach of the Medical Cannabis frame is strong. As with most pharmaceutical drugs and medical treatments, this frame believes that the harmful effects of cannabis are real and can be severe. It assumes that prescription by a licensed medical doctor and purchase from a regulated supplier is the only acceptable use of cannabis, and that cannabis should not be used recreationally. However, this frame tries to emphasize that the category of patients that are victims of prohibition is expanding, with new research finding new ailments that can be treated by cannabis, thus continuously adding elements of novelty to the problem. It thus shares the same precautionary approach as the Harm Reduction and Health and Safety frame, albeit for recreational use only. The Medical Cannabis frame defines the harms of prohibition towards patient as intentional. This is articulated in two different ways. First of all, there are very few institutional and knowledge constraints of decision makers to allow the medical use of cannabis. Policy makers, it argues, have enough access to information about medical cannabis to make an informed decision, especially consideration the legal precedents in Canada, the United States. The decision to prohibit medical cannabis is taken without the mitigating circumstances that would make prohibition inadvertently harmful. The frame also highlights the possible reasons behind the intentional harm as being, first, in the form of a “conspiracy that works” in order to protect the interests of the pharmaceutical industry and, second, in order to protect the integrity of the official discourse of cannabis which labels the substance as inherently dangerous. The policy is seen as oppressive, while patients are labeled as victims. The problem definition implies a simple policy solution: a conditional legalizing of cannabis for medical purposes only alongside a prohibition for recreational use.

Frame 4: the Decriminalization frame

The Decriminalization frame’s fundamental causal story is that by criminalizing the possession cannabis, prohibition causes harm to users and to society. The problem is defined in terms of the justice system and criminality. The causal story of harm to users is that arrest, prosecution and incarceration are more harmful than the act of consumption itself. Incarceration is considered to be a great risk for physical and mental health, employability and self-esteem. The categorisation of consumers into criminals undermines their human rights by turning them into criminal outcasts and constraining their access to finance, housing and education. Prohibition is also harms users by forcing them to have proximate contact with an unsafe criminal environment in which they can be exposed to violent treatment and even death. Prohibition is also seen to harm society by diverting policing resources away from more harmful activities, by overcrowding the penal system with possession and minor distribution charges and by adding fiscal pressure and the tax burden. By expanding the scope of victims from users to society as a whole, the decriminalisation frame uses the same, albeit reverse, logic as the Health and Safety frame: harm to users eventually trickles down to society. This frame nonetheless has a precautionary approach towards cannabis. It shares the same beliefs about the harms of cannabis all the previously described frames, and consequently argues that consumption of cannabis creates severe harms to the user and to society. The main difference from the previous frames is that it doesn’t believe in the deterrent effect of coercion and does not accept the idea that it will decrease consumption and its harms to society. Government restraint of use is thus justified, but coercion is seen as a disproportionate and ultimately counter-productive measure. The reduction of availability that a precautionary approach entails is believe to be satisfied by administrative and civil sanctions rather than criminal sanctions. The Decriminalization frame considers the intent of policy makers that argue for prohibition to be inadvertent. Indeed, the harms resulting from the crimininalization of users is perceived as a foreseeable but ultimately unintended consequence of a well intended policy. The belief in the deterrent effect of criminal sanctions, it argues, was founded upon the idea that users would reduce their consumption in the light of the threat of coercion. The policy response to the decriminalization frame is, unsurprisingly, the replacement of criminal sanctions for cannabis consumption with a heavy regulated regime of administrative and civil sanctions.

Frame 5: the Free Market Frame

The Free Market Frame’s fundamental causal is that prohibition inherently harms individual users and society as a whole. Although it is essentially argue on economic terms, it depicts health, crime and social problems related to drugs as being caused by prohibition. It argues that the concept of prohibition itself is harmful because it is an inherent negation of individual liberty and, as a policy, prohibition should be very parsimoniously, if ever, applied. Prohibition causes the rise of a black market bound to be dominated by cartels in which the only means of competition for clients are through the control of territory, in most cases fought for with violent means. Drug-related crime is thus directly caused by prohibition. The Free Market Frame supposes that prohibition reduces the quality of cannabis while driving up its costs, making its consumption more harmful. It disables consumers from accessing information about the particular cannabis and have little or no ability to assess a products quality before purchase. The black market is also believed to make cannabis more accessible to children, because drug suppliers have no incentive discriminate between consumers according to legal age standards. Social problems are caused by high prices, decreasing quality and incarceration, which in turn are the result of prohibition.

The Free Market Frame has a weak precautionary approach towards cannabis. This is not the result of a particular positive perception of cannabis as a substance but rather as a general belief that precaution should not be a principle that nominally guides policy. It implies that harm to the consumer does not trickle necessarily trickle down to society, at least not to a degree that would necessitate a breach of self-ownership. While the mental and physical harms of cannabis to the user are recognised, the social harms depicted by other frames are caused by the policy.

The Free Market Frame does not assert that the harms caused by prohibition are intended by policy makers. The unintended consequences of harms to users and society are believed to be inherent to prohibition, but policy makers make decisions are invalid economic beliefs such as consumer behavior, the inelasticity of cannabis demand and general misguided beliefs about the ability of government to distribute resources in a more efficient and just manner than a free market regime. It is lack of understanding and information regarding free market principles that ensure that policy makers are unable to forsee the predictable harms of prohibition. The policy solution is very simple: the removal of prohibition and the establishment of a free market for cannabis. In order words, this frame’s implicit policy response is legalization of cannabis.

Frame 6: the Discrimination frame

The discrimination frame’s fundamental causal story is that prohibition causes harm to users by disabling them to pursue an activity which they value. The nature of harm is a discriminatory denial of the right to pursue pleasure. While the denial of pleasure is a harm in itself, this frame concentrates of the harms consumers of cannabis face by being subjected to the criminal environment that surrounds drug supply and the harms resulting from the possibility of prosecution and incarceration. It shares the same fundamental causal story of the Decriminalization and Free Market Frame but concentrates of the civil rights of users aspect.

This frame has a weak precautionary approach to cannabis. The nature of the approach is different from the Free Market Frame because this frame supports the precautionary principle as guiding public policy, but it does not believe that cannabis causes harm to users or society. Rather, it perceives cannabis as a substance which has substantial benefits to the user while producing little or no harm to anyone. This frame supports a non-discriminatory precautionary principle in which the measures of harm are equally applied to all substances and activities without regard to cultural preferences or historical precedent. If the same precautionary approach towards cannabis that prohibition entails, alcohol and tobacco should also be prohibited. Discrimination thus stems from the fact that a stronger precautionary approach towards cannabis is being used as a principle for public policy regarding its legal status. It implies that precautionary approaches should be based on scientific evidence alone, and that the same criteria should be applied to all drugs, either currently legal or illegal.

This frame defines the problems created by prohibition as being caused by the intentional discrimination of policy makers towards cannabis users. It supposes that policy makers conceal their intent to persecute cannabis users for moral reasons, religious or ideological reasons with health and safety rhetoric. Some of the presumed secret motives of policy makers include the immobilization of hippy and other reformist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s whose members were publicly know to be users of cannabis. They portray policy makers as oppressive and patriarchal who want users to conform to conservative moral standards. The policy response that this problem definition entails is the provision of civil rights to users equal to the rights of alcohol drinkers and tobacco smokers, which is to be achieved by the legalization of cannabis.

The institutional framing of the Health and Safety frame in the U.K.’s drug policy

The policy making process in the U.K.’s drug policy, essentially consisting of determining the statutory legal status of drugs and policies to enforce it, is institutionally constrained as an ongoing conflict between the Health and Safety frame and the Harm Reduction frame. The scope of the problem is thus limited by the first and second axioms of the framework, meaning that acceptance that drug related social problems are caused by consumption of drugs and their control by government is justified by a precautionary approach are two agreed upon elements of problem definition that limit the scope of policy solutions. Perhaps because it reflects the general risk aversiveness of policy makers s or their desire to reduce social problems to the simplest definition possible while avoiding blame, the government, in particular the Home Office, is the institution in which the Heal and Safety frame has been anchored. On the other hand, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the expert body tasked with providing advice about drug policy, produces policy advice according to the Harm Reduction frame. The institutional arrangements between these two institutions can be considered permeable albeit conflictual channel of negotiation and compromise between the two frames.

In 1971, the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) is passed to make new provisions with respect to dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs and related manners: it establishes ABC classification system of drugs, a legal framework in which the possession, use, production or sale of drugs bare different legal consequences depending on the class. Although a preliminary classification is provided, the act states that “her majesty may […] make such amendments […] as may be requisite for the purpose of adding any substance or product to, or removing any substance or product from, any of Parts 1 to 3 [of the preliminary classification]”. The Health and Safety frame’s application consists of continuous pressure by government to add more drugs to the classification system, to maintain the original classification. Any modification to the original classification consist of moving drugs from the lower classes to higher classes when new harms are discovered. The Harm Reduction frame’s application consists of the ACMD’s continuous attempts to move drugs from the most harmful categories to the lesser categories, to slow down the process by which drugs are added and to lobby for the concentration of government resources towards education, learning and addiction treatment. The logic of prohibition being confirmed by the two first axioms of both frames, it matters not who gets the upper hand in the frame conflict: prohibition would remain justified either way.

The MDA is quite unique in that it enshrines in statutory law the institutional arrangement between the Home Office and the ACMD by legally defining the acceptable source of advice that guides drug policy. The advice is to be scientific in nature, limited to identifying drugs whose effects are harmful enough to cause social problems. The act also creates the ACMD, which is to be given a quasi monopoly of the provision of scientific advice, in order to:

“keep under review the situation in the United Kingdom with respect to drugs which appear to be misused or appear to them likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having or appears to them of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem, and to give to any one or more of the Ministers, where either the Council consider it expedient to do so or they are consulted by the Minister or Ministers in question, advice on measures […] which in the opinion of the Council ought to be taken”

Because its advice is compulsory before making changes to the MDA, it enjoys a particular status amongst advisory NDPBs. Other advice can come from “other published research, consultations with key stakeholders, and the advice and experiences of practitioners within the drugs field upon whom the issue of classification has a direct effect”, but Government has acknowledged that the ACMD was the provider of the “key advice on the classification of drugs”. The Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker also stated that the fact Government seeks advice from the ACMD ensures that drug policy is evidence-based. The Report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee concludes that “the Government’s total reliance on the ACMD for provision of scientific advice on drugs policy gives the Council a critical role to play in ensuring that policy in this area is evidence based”.

While it may be true that policy is evidence-based, the type of evidence considered and how it is used in a political setting is determined by the frame: evidence is limited to evidence of harm from to consumers and society resulting from cannabis use, and the degree to which evidence justifies government control is used in a discretionary manner by policy makers. Indeed, the criteria of harm of the ACMD are divided in three categories: the physical harms of drugs (acute, chronic or intravenous), drug dependence (intensity of pleasure, psychological dependence and physical dependence) and social harms (intoxication, other social harms — which includes drug-related crimes such as acquisitive crime, and health-care costs resulting from treatmenent of drug harms). Harms resulting from prohibition are explicitely excluded as guiding advice for drug policy.

The institutional arrangements between the science and policy can be characterized as Jürgen Habermas’ “decisionist model”, which states that experts are left with a primarily instrumental function: providing rational justification for government policies, while politicians are known to favor advice that support their convictions . In contemporary policy making, “politicians use the results of research selectively and sometimes in the pursuit of their own interests, while scientific discoveries and their political consequences hardly gain a hearing in public and in the political decision-making process”. Science, as an institution, is a crucial arbiter empirical claims that justify causal stories. By _de facto _delegating regulatory decisions to a scientific body whose expert status gives it the ability to identify uncontestable truths, the Health and Safety frame becomes immune to the criminal, economic, justice and civil rights considerations of the competing frames. These considerations would appear if the ACMD had not been institutionalized as the only source of input advice. The scientific body in question is tasked by government to consider drugs according to “the degree to which drugs consumption harms society”, which translates into advice as to which category drugs should be classified in while completely escaping the fundamental question that other frames wish to ask, “should the drug be illegal at all?”. Moreover, as deciding the appropriate legal sanctions for each drug class is not in the competence of the ACMD, and as there is no other major source of advice, the appropriate legal sanction is effectively immune from any change, expect if other frames were to become dominant within government.

Stability as the reduction of conflict

The conflict between Harm Reduction and Health and Safety, when looking at the framework, is clearly trivial: the outcome of the conflict is bound to lead to the same policy. Stability is thus guaranteed as long as the conflict remains reduced between these two frames. The conflict itself appears, however, to be very intense. It creates a real social debate about the degree of harm of certain drugs that monopolises public and media attention while relegating other frames as mere curiosities. Indeed, the resistance of government to concede major points to the ACMD’s decisions, notably by reclassifying cannabis from a class C to a class B drug, or the reluctancy of government to declassify MDMA (ecstasy) as a class A to a class B drug, has lead the controversial sacking of professor David Nutt and numerous resignations from ACMD members. The nature of the conflict is limited to the third axiom of the framework: while the ACMD visibly lobbies for policy tools to be guided by the inadvertent criteria of the Harm Reduction frame, the government argues that the belief in deterrence and that coercion “sends a message” to users to modify their behavior should be the principle guiding policy tools. The stability of the U.K.’s prohibition policy towards marijuana is thus achieved by limiting the conflict over problem definitions to problem definitions whose policy solution remains essentially the same. Problem definition is clearly an instrument of power in achieving stability, and the ability to set the debate in Health and Safety terms and to institutionalise those terms through statutory enshrined institutional arrangements is, according to this research, the reason why the U.K.’s drug policy towards cannabis has achieved a high level of stability.


As an analytical device, framing derives its use not because of its internal consistency, its simplicity or verifiability. Rather, it has the remarkable ability to turn the conceptual weakness of rational models of analysis, the constraints on rationality resulting from the intersubjective nature of social problems, into a coherent explanatory concept. By focusing primarily on the agenda-setting phase of the policy process and the effect of framing on public opinion, the framing literature has not yet fully exploited to power of framing theories. By interpreting the policy process as an ongoing struggle for dominance between frames, this research concludes that framing indeed explains the mechanics behind a policy achieving stability.

Instead of keeping the traditional conceptions of framing, this research attempted to elaborate a conception of framing that centers on problem definition. This makes the identification of frames easier and ensures that frames can easily be reduced to their most simple form. To exploit the full potential of the concept of framing, the main focus of this research has been to elaborate a framework from which an analyst can identify the different frames present in a policy discourse in a way that shows the nature of their relationship with one another. The alternative framework proposed by Deborah Stone is conceptually flawed and does not enable policy analysts to accurately identify the different frames present in a policy discourse. Her research does not take into account whether harm is being caused by individuals and by existing policies, which this researchbelieves is the most fundamental difference possible between competing frames. It has, because of this flaw, no practical use, which still leaves framing under exploited.

The new framework proposed by this research shows to which degree compromise between frames is possible and what precise characteristics of frames make them incompatible with others. The framework has been conceived as a hierarchical set of three mutually exclusive axioms of dichotomic value.

The main reason for this was to achieve mutually exclusive templates for frames: by separating the criteria for identifying frames according to their level of generality, this research aimed at correcting the flaws in Stone’s framework. Moreover, separating the framework in a hierarchical manner is what enables the analyst to identify the point of rupture at which frames become incompatible with each other.

The three axioms that this research chose to use were: the fundamental causal story, the precautionary approach towards cannabis and the intent of the harm creators.

The fundamental causal story is an axiom this research developed which combines the unanimously recognized criteria of frames and problem definitions, causality, with a new variable, the causal direction of harm. Not only does this axiom highlight how the frame supposes harm is being created, it clearly makes the distinction between harm created by individual behavior and harm created by policies.

The second axiom this research created was dubbed the precautionary approach to harm. The usefulness of this axiom is that it combines a vague and general criterion, the precautionary principle, and the perception of the substance of cannabis. This allows the framework to identify the specific explanation that frames imply for the justification of government control of cannabis.

The third axiom this framework uses is the criterion of intent of the harm creators. This research has argued that the normative criterion of intent is not sufficient to separate frames that otherwise share the first and second axioms to a degree that they will not support the same policy. Indeed, the perceived intent of the harm creators may lead the frame to support different policy goals, or may lead advocates of the frame to use a different rhetoric, but it will not lead to a change substantial enough to be considered a rupture of stability.

Frames that are only separated by the axiom of intent are thus able to engage in negotiation with one.another and form coalitions to support an essentially similar policy.

This research ended with a discussion of the theoretical relationship between frames and institutions, on which was predicated the clear identification of mutually exclusive frames. Using framing as an explanatory device for the study of stability indeed required a framework that can identify the different frames and the degree to which they are compatible with other. Stability, this research concludes, is achieved when the institutional arrangements of the policy process reflect a single frame or two frames that are permeable.

Our theoretical framework thus demonstrates the ability to show how the initial framing of a policy problem shapes how the problem will be debated, and how the control of the dominant problem definition is the key factor in deciding which policy will be used to fix it.

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