Negative portrayals in the media and politics are reinforcing the perception that drug use is ‘immoral’ and people who use drugs are a threat to society, says a new report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy. This in turn increases stigma and discrimination and means that people who use drugs are seen as ‘sub-human, non-citizens, scapegoats for wider societal problems’ and undeserving of the right to health.
Most drug use worldwide is ‘episodic’ rather than problematic, says The world drug perception problem: countering prejudices about people who use drugs, and what should be factual discussions are ‘frequently debated as moral ones’. Policies and responses are often based on ‘perceptions and passionate beliefs’ rather than evidence, it says, with no medical condition ‘more stigmatised’ than addiction.
‘Public opinion and media portrayals reinforce one another, and they contribute to and perpetuate the stigma associated with drugs and drug use,’ says the document. ‘Commonly encountered terms such as “junkie”, “drug abuser” and “crackhead” are alienating, and designate people who use drugs as “others” – morally flawed and inferior individuals.’ When combined with the criminalisation of drug use, stigma and discrimination ‘are directly related to the violation of the human rights of people who use drugs in many countries’, it states.
Policy makers should aim to change perceptions of drugs and people who use them by providing reliable and consistent information, the report urges, while ‘opinion leaders’ in the media should promote the use of non-stigmatising language. Healthcare professionals also need to be vocal in promoting harm reduction and evidence-based interventions, while law enforcement should ‘stop acts of harassment based on negative perceptions of people who use drugs’.
‘“Addiction” remains extremely stigmatised in health care settings,’ said former executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Michel Kazatchkine. ‘Language matters. Research has shown that even trained mental health practitioners treat differently cases where patients are referred to as “substance abusers” than those alluded to as “people with a substance use problem’”.
‘In Switzerland’s direct democracy, drug policy reform promoting a health-centered approach focused on harm reduction and treatment has repeatedly triumphed at the ballot box,’ said Global Commission chair and former Swiss president, Ruth Dreifuss. ‘This is in large part because the public was well informed of the facts and positive outcomes.’