Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to explore the hidden social worlds of competent clandestine users of drugs controlled within the confines of the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which now includes NPS substances. The authors explore how and in what way socially competent drug users differ from others who are visible to the authorities as criminals by criminal justice bureaucracies and known to treatment agencies as defined problem drug users. Design/methodology/approach: This qualitative research utilises a bricoleur ethnographic methodology considered as a critical, multi-perspectival, multi-theoretical and multi-methodological approach to inquiry. Findings: This paper challenges addiction discourses and, drawing upon empirical evidence, argues the user of controlled drugs should not be homogenised. Using several key strategies of identity management, drug takers employ a range of risk awareness and risk neutralisation techniques to protect self-esteem, avoid social affronts and in maintaining untainted identities. The authors present illicit drug use as one activity amongst other social activities that (some) people, conventionally, pursue. The findings from this study suggest that punitive drug policy, which links drug use with addiction, crime and antisocial behaviour, is inconsistent with the experience of the participants. Research limitations/implications: Due to the small sample size (n=24) employed, the possibility that findings can be generalised is rendered difficult. However, generalisation was never an objective of the research; the experiences of this hidden population are deeply subjective and generalising findings and applying them to other populations would be an unproductive endeavour. While the research attempted to recruit an equal number of males and females to this research, gendered analysis was not a primary objective of this research. However, it is acknowledged that future research would greatly benefit from such a gendered focus. Practical implications: The insights from the study may be useful in helping to inform future policy discourse on issues of drug use. In particular, the insights suggest that a more nuanced perspective should be adopted. This perspective should recognise the non-deviant identities of many drug users in the contemporary era, and challenge the use of a universally stigmatising discourse and dominance of prohibition narratives. Social implications: It is envisaged that this paper will contribute to knowledge on how socially competent users of controlled drugs identify and manage the risks of moral, medical and legal censure. Originality/value: The evidence in this paper indicates that drug use is an activity often associated with non-deviant, productive members of the population. However, the continuing dominance of stigmatising policy discourses often leads to drug users engaging in identity concealment within the context of a deeply capitalist Western landscape.