You are here

My PhD journey: the highs and lows of undertaking sensitive research on cannabis use


AdobeStock 128550238

Written by Granville Sutton

Edited by Adam Devine.

After ten-years selling cars, I wanted to embark upon a more meaningful career, one that would enable me to directly engage with social issues that I cared about. Supporting offenders out of crime was something that appealed to me after speaking to a friend’s father, who was a probation officer. Lacking in any direct experience of working in criminal justice and being unsure of what exact role I would be best suited for, I embarked upon a full-time degree in Psychology and Criminology at the University of Suffolk (previously known as University Campus Suffolk) graduating in 2009. Studying at University of Suffolk was very rewarding, I was taught by some very inspirational and supportive lecturers.

In order to gain some practical experience in readiness to find employment after my degree I worked as a healthcare assistant at St Clements psychiatric hospital. After graduation, and largely because of my time spent working at St Clements I secured employment in a variety of NHS support roles including the Assertive Outreach Team (mental health) in Ipswich and the Substance Misuse Service (SMS West) in Bury St Edmunds. I found that the knowledge I had learned on my degree was really useful for understanding the links between mental health, drug use and criminal behaviour.

As time went on, I was spending less time working in mental health and more time working at SMS West. When the SMS West service transferred to the third sector, I was able to move from support work to a case management. Whilst working as a case manager, I completed my MSc in Forensic Psychology and Criminology with the Open University (OU). Studying with the OU further enhanced my ability to motivate myself and work independently. In my view, these are vital study skills for any prospective PhD student. 

For the last 7 years, the majority of my career in substance misuse has been spent working in police custody supporting detainees who use heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol to access treatment. So, equipped with two good degree’s and a wealth of professional experience I felt ready to get on with a PhD. In the year before I applied to University of Suffolk, I did a lot of reading up on advanced research methods and I joined several online PhD communities. I chatted extensively with PhD students from a variety of subjects including physics, chemistry, maths and history. After hearing several narratives both good and bad, I felt ready to apply. I knew from the outset that my research would focus upon substance misuse, but I wasn’t sure what my specific topic would be.

A PhD is all about conducting original research, so the first task is always to review the literature and establish what your discipline knows about the subject you are interested in. For the most part (due to extensive government funding over the years) research from a wide variety of disciplines are able to provide rich insights into the nature of addiction and the social situation of people who use heroin and crack cocaine. In contrast far less research has been directed towards understanding the life experiences of people who use drugs such as cannabis. This I found surprising when I reviewed data form the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW, 2015) which indicated that a significant minority of people of 40 years of age have used cannabis consistently since young adulthood.

Even less has been written about use of the drug in rural communities. Indeed, both these omissions were noted by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in 2008. Nonetheless, some classical texts remain valuable for providing some theoretical direction including Becker’s (1963) qualitative examination of a ‘subculture’ of cannabis using Chicago Jazz musicians in 1940s Chicago, Willis’s (1978) ethnographic study of hippies and bikers and the ‘North West Study (Measham, Newcombe and Parker. 1994) that quantitatively tracked drug use among adolescents and young adults during the popularisation of ‘rave culture’ in the 1990s.

The gaps in the sociological literature propelled me to put forward an initial proposal that I could discuss with potential supervisors at Suffolk. I am fortunate to have been accepted and assigned an excellent team of supervisors including Professor Emma Bond and Dr Paul Andell and Professor Nigel South from the University of Essex. I am also thankful to the wider academic team in the School of Law and Social Sciences who continue to support me by providing the opportunity to present my work to current students.

After the elation of ‘getting in’ comes the bump back down to earth in the form of the extended literature review, critical essays, the full research proposal, presentations, progression board and the often ‘dreaded’ ethical approval process. Having successfully gone through the University’s ethics process I can say that gaining ethical approval is challenging, yet at the same time, I found it to be a very rewarding experience. I now have primary research data obtained from a study I designed, and this feels great! The research training that I have received from the Graduate School has prepared me for the field and I will be forever grateful for this support. Although I still have a long way to go before my PhD is all done, I am beyond half way towards getting to wear a big floppy hat for the day. The thought of this motivates me on the most challenging days.



Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) (2008) ‘Drug Misuse and the Environment’. Druglink: London.

Becker H, S. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press.

Home Office (2015) Drug Misuse: Findings from the 2014/15 Crime Survey for England and Wales. London: HMSO.

Measham, F., Newcomb, R and Parker H (1994) ‘The Normalization of Recreational Drug Use Amongst Young People in North-West England’. British Journal of Sociology 45 (2) pp 287-312

Willis P, E. (1971) Profane Culture. Oxford: Princeton   


Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Shortcodes usage

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Please note that comments will not be editable once submitted and comments will display the name entered.

Please click here to view our Blog Comments Terms and Conditions.