How labels like ‘addict’ and ‘junkie’ mask class contempt for drug users

By Delia · Feb 9, 2018 · ·
  1. Delia
    Terms such as “drug user”, “addict” or the blatantly pejorative “junkie”, “dope head” or “stoner”, are loaded with moral bias. They suggest that people who consume psychoactive substances are mentally weak and dangerous – when in fact chemically altering the mind (the natural drive for “intoxication”) has long been a part of human biology and culture, most of which does not lead to any harm or crime.

    [​IMG]A recent report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) – a group of drug policy reformers including political and business personalities such as Kofi Annan, Richard Branson and Nick Clegg – challenged the stigma surrounding widely held preconceptions about problematic substance use. Many prejudiced views are embedded in the everyday language we use around drugs.

    Unpacking language and popular rhetoric might help us see that clean needle and syringe provision, opiate substitution treatment, drug consumption rooms and other interventions that mitigate the potential harms of drug use (“harm reduction” approaches) are more effective than futile, prohibition-focused wars on drugs.

    The report was a much needed intervention for channelling the debate towards more rational ways of discussing drug problems, policy and programmes. In cases where people do develop drug-related problems, using neutral terms such as “a person who uses drugs” or “a person with drug dependence/problematic drug use/substance use disorder” can help dispel some of the myths and damaging stigma.

    But tempting as it might be to hope that a cultural shift alone will ensure meaningful change, we needn’t forget that stigma is often rooted in unjust material conditions and power relations that societies must also address.

    Classifying substances – and users

    [​IMG]Much of the stigmatising language that equates drug use with moral failure is disseminated through the conservative parts of the mainstream media. However, as my recent research indicates, drug news reporting is not only a reflection of moral bias held against people who use drugs, but also of moral bias held against the lower classes.

    I looked into over 800 news articles on new psychoactive substances (NPS), formerly known as “legal highs”, published by Romanian (two broadsheets and two tabloid dailies) and British (four tabloid dailies and a regional one) newspapers stretching from 2009 to 2017. Aiming to compare media stories in a postcommunist, relatively young democracy in Eastern Europe, and a more traditionally liberal society in the West, both cases revealed differences in the symbolic frames used to depict who the users were, and what drugs and the ways of taking them were understood to be.

    NPS is quite a broad and fluid category, comprising existing and new, naturally-occurring and laboratory-processed classes of substances that could be used recreationally. But the associated harms were defined differently depending on the class connotations various NPS evoked.

    [​IMG]In Romania, NPS were labelled “ethnobotanicals” or “ethnobotanical plants” – terms first used by head-shop entrepreneurs claiming to be selling for “research purposes”, widely picked up by journalists. When at first (2009-2011) this was perceived to mean synthetic cannabinoids (“Spice” products) used by otherwise “normal”, educated youths, media narratives mostly referred to the dangers these drugs posed to the user, as they gambled their future: drug-induced “self-harm”, “dependence” or “addiction”.

    When later on (2012-2013), “ethnobotanicals” came to mean amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) injected by poor, unemployed, sometimes ethnic minority (Roma) users, the narrative focused more on their increased visibility within public spaces, violent and antisocial behaviour, along with rising HIV-infection rates recorded on the side of unsanitary injecting practices. This was more about a potential contagion risk posed to wider society.

    [​IMG]In the UK, mephedrone (a synthetic cathinone used as a stimulant party drug by what the media deemed “carefree”, “innocent”, “aspiring” and generally unsuspecting teenagers) went mainstream around 2009-2012. Newspapers framed it in terms of a game of “Russian Roulette” that not only threatened users’ own lives but also wider society whose future they represented.

    When later (2016-2017) media attention moved from middle-class youths and mephedrone on to synthetic cannabinoids or Spice turning rough sleepers into “zombies” and wreaking havoc among prison inmates, headlines pointed to the abject spectacle of disorder displayed by such groups – “pale, wasted people”, “defecating in the middle of the day”, “swaying about” in “dystopian” settings. “Like a horror movie,” as described in one report.

    Drugs, injustice and austerity

    The concepts of “drugs” and “addiction” obscure the reality of social distinctions and deep inequalities; young, middle-class use is depicted as problematic because it threatens its subjects and the continuity of the “valuable” (and dominant parts of) society they represent, and low or underclass use because of its potentially polluting and contagious nature.

    Changing the language of drugs alone might do little to ease the brutally felt violence of austerity and cuts in unemployment or housing benefits. Many of the homeless “Spice zombies” ridiculed in the media will have been the victims of the close to 120 landlord evictions carried out on an average day in England and Wales, in 2015. Close to half of the ever rising numbers of homeless people in the country use drugs and alcohol to cope with mental health problems, while accommodation and support services have been reporting massive reductions in funding.

    Focus on language but not political action also diverts attention from the impact of prohibitionist legislation such as the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, effectively a blanket ban on all NPS and head shops. This might have pushed products like Spice into street markets where they’re adulterated with other drugs and fuel overdoses and aggression, as academics and charity workers have warned.

    In the absence of specific training and educational resources, health workers might just learn what is acceptable to say without changing long-held beliefs about patients who use drugs. But training is not a priority in an overstrained and understaffed NHS.

    Aiming to change language alone without addressing the structural disadvantages and political issues that hide behind it might provide a narrative of action, but it could achieve next to nothing in improving the condition of the most vulnerable of people who use drugs. The widespread use of derogatory language shows it is naive to aim for fairer drug policies without aiming for fairer societies. One without the other is simply impossible.

    Image credit: Shutterstock
    Note: llinks to relevant studies can be found in the original news article.

    Original Source

    Written by: Liviu Alexandrescu, Feb 8, 2018, The Conversation

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    Reasonable and Janey’sanaddict like this.

Recent User Reviews

  1. Reasonable
    "An interesting appeal for more discretion"
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Apr 17, 2018
    This article makes an interesting appeal for the use of more discretion when discussions turn to drug users because of the stigma associated with labels like "junkie" and other names like "addict" that are said to be used to mask class contempt for the people they describe. Personally, I don't find the term "addict" offensive because that's a noun for someone who is addicted or battles addiction.

    The connotation seems on the surface to be matter of fact and without an effort to stigmatize the people described with that term, but I can see how it could be received that way among more mainstream audiences in social class situations. If such labels are contributing to the ill effects experienced by a drug user due to the implied class contempt carried with its use, then I can see how it would be expedient to adopt less offensive, less contemptuous, and less class-centered terminology to replace the outdated model that seems to be making life harder for those who likely have a tough enough time as it is overcoming obstacles and challenges related to drug use in a society that looks at such use with contempt.
    Emilita likes this.


  1. Cordell
    Im a very strong believer that names add to the stigma that addiction carries from person to person. And thats exactly who I (They) are. Society is slowly waking up to this situation because its now showed us that addiction affects all walks of life will not and does not discriminate. I was one of those low life junkies. Homeless jobless and heartless somehow i made it out of that dark dark phase in my life because one person didnt look at my addiction as brick wall but as a fresh canvas to paint our master piece. So many people are labeled and the feeling that comes with that only make the road to recovery hars to get on or easier to stall out.
      Freestyle 79 likes this.
  2. aemetha
    I really don't think the word "addict" should be lumped in with words like "Junkie". Junkie is always a derogatory term, addict is only so contextually. The APA already went down this road of renaming words for addiction (addiction, dependence, substance use disorder) and all it has done is create confusion about the issues, and particularly the issue of dependence through tolerance and addiction through learned behaviour. If you get rid of the word addict, how is anyone ever supposed to discuss the subject?

    You might be an addict, so that means you need to... <-- perfectly neutral and correct use of the word.
    You are a filthy, weak addict <-- derogatory use of the word.

    So if you want to get rid of one word, are you now getting rid of entire sentences because it's the rest of the sentence giving the words context?

    I agree with the article, the emphasis should be on changing attitudes, not language.
      Cordell likes this.
  3. Cordell
    The hole conversation about addiction, at times can be exhausting. With widely spread opinions from various sources, makes it such a difficult topic to discuss. Not only because addiction has affected people and there families in various ways but because theres so many gray areas and uneducated people that only debate the topic out of emotion. Either anger disbelief or sadness. Depending on how the addiction has shown its ugly face in there lives. Is there enough time is there enough compassion or willingness to listen and understand, what the fundamentals are in the making of a so called addict \ junkie. Its not always from a broken or a trauma monkey see monkey do. There is numerous ways \ reasons this can happen. Believe me it can happen to any one. The bottom line is if your not a mechanic you drive but you really dont know much about cars so you really cant be firm on knowing what you talking about. Same thing with addictions, if youve had that impact on your life or not, get some knowledge on this very hard and painful thing to understand, before you choose emotion binding opinions and understand that we are all humans capable of being loved and to love. Some of us just might need to be loved a little longer and a little harder.
  4. Jordan belfort
    Opinions expressed by others have absolutely no meaning or effect unless you rely on others to build your self worth, and when you train yourself to stop living life from everyone elses POV you can unmask and deal with the problems causing your drug use in the first place. But if you find true happiness and fulfillment through drug use why would you stop just to appease social norms. We're not here for long, do what makes you enjoy your time here most, whether its smoking meth or traveling the world it doesnt matter in the long run. Choose happiness and expect a good life and stop associating yourself with categories made up by people who don't matter. Society will convince you that every thing you do is wrong and you have a problem because most people are unhappy and want you to be too by criticizing your actions when in reality, no one knows whats right. The only person that has to approve of you is you, life is easy when you allow it to be and very difficult when you don't.

    "The biggest mistake anyone makes in life is taking the advice of their peers" - Napoleon Hill
      Cordell and Reasonable like this.
  5. Cordell
    I wish it was that easy to just do drugs because we have one life to live. Its just not that black and white. Hard drugs have the capacity to ruin and control your life. Eventually your not even happy with yourself, after you found the spark that ignites your fire before long that blaze has died down. The shock settles in and you begin to wonder how you ended up spiritually bankrupt existing no longer living with a purpose. Peoples opinions rest hard on the perception of ones self setting the bar high. If you wake up daily and claim the day as your own then you achieve the power of your own happiness. Living by or for someone elses standards eventually can lead you to questioning who you really are. Individuality has no negative side effects, due to the fact that we can think, act and perceive all in different ways and terms. The society we have become of by default is a crual and unjust. One step at a time one day at a time, stay true to yourself and your heart, at the end of the day its you and only you. So when you look at your reflection you recognize the man looking back at you.
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