Participatory research (PR) strategies have been used extensively in policy and practice based research in the last fifteen years in the UK. This paper offers a critical reflection on the growth in PR programmes commissioned by statutory bodies as part of attempts to understand the influence of race, ethnicity and racism on issues related to substance misuse policy and practice. The stated aim of many PR programmes has been to alter the role of the communities involved, from the subject matter of research activity undertaken by academic outsiders, to co-producers of knowledge. The paper addresses four specific issues: first, the recent political context in which the use of PR has grown; second, the ways in which participation and community have been operationalized in different projects; third, the differences between vertically driven and horizontally driven PR; and fourth, the different methods and modes of involvement and their implications. It finishes by raising some concerns which might inform future approaches to PR.