Why We Need To End The Stigma Against Drug Addiction

Why We Need To End The Stigma Against Drug Addiction

Drug addiction reflects deeper issues within our society and is an outlet for those whose cries have been used against them.

This past semester I’ve done research on PWIDs (people who inject drugs) and harm reduction programs. The complexity and ever-forming layers to this single issue (which is interconnected to many other societal components) cannot be justifiably covered in such a short essay, but I will break it down to the best of my ability in as few words as possible. Due to my limited knowledge in anything outside injection drug use within the United States much of this article specifically refers to the limited research I have done.

Often times when the topic of drug addiction or abuse is discussed in classes I usually hear one or two classmates make arguments that it is the user’s choice, that drug use by injection is illegal, and that these people are selfish and nothing but trash. What if, like so many issues in this world, drug addiction wasn’t so painfully black and white? What if the general public and policy makers and health educators knew just how intricate and deeply reflective of our societal issues addictive drug use really is? To some the issue is simple: drug use is illegal and users should be put in jail. To others it is so convoluted it’s not even worth trying to figure out.

In my research I have found that not only are drug rehabilitation centers lacking in appropriate care for many PWIDs, but they lack much sway when the individual is placed right back in the environment in which their addiction had started.

Why do people use drugs?

There are various reasons why a person may try a drug, but addiction isn’t just something someone can overcome and conquer. Genetically speaking, some people are more prone to addictive behavior. With drugs like heroine, which are chemically composed to be addictive, the combination of the two plus many other variables makes for a completely complicated situation than can’t be solved by shipping people off to prison or rehab.

To top it all off the communities especially vulnerable to IV drug use are typically the people who face structural barriers and violence, poverty, stigma, xenophobia, internalized oppression, open oppression, and dismal opportunities to move forward. If drug use and illegal acts are what society expects of these communities there would come a point where many believe that is all they will ever be: washed up nobodies who live only to disappoint. This is absolutely not the case and when we take a moment to assess the full picture we see that there are so many of us set up for failure and when we do “fail” we’re cast aside; we become a statistic, robbed of our humanity.

What are the risks?

In these instances many PWIDs can’t afford to get a clean needle for every use. In some cases they will go to a shooting gallery where a group of people will gather and inject drugs together (sharing needles). The act of sharing needles is actually extremely dangerous. Between 2005 and 2014 the amount of PWIDs diagnosed with HIV had decreased by 63% and in 2014 about 6% of people living with HIV had been infected by unsafe needle use. There is the constant risk of getting caught with the drugs in possession. Even worse there is the risk of not being able to afford to feed the addiction and for many PWIDs that is a terrifying reality. These people are constantly living in fear and isolation.

What has changed and what can be done?

Abstinence as an answer to drug addiction and abuse works just as well as it does when it comes to sex education, which means it doesn’t work at all. People need to be educated in a way that they can understand, in a way that is comprehensive and applicable to their own lives. One of the best parts about harm reduction programs is the availability of resources and information. Free access to clean needles, counseling, and testing for HIV and other infections (and basic treatment) are just a small part of what harm reduction programs provide for these disenfranchised people in need. They are funded privately and by the state, though the funds are scant. Sometimes volunteers will hand out clean needles on the street, in other cases they will temporarily station in parks or trails and provide packages of information, needles, contacts for help, condoms, etc. The argument against these programs is that it is illegal. If someone is doing illegal drugs they shouldn’t be provided a means to further their illegal acts, right?

To make this relatable think back to when you first entered college. For many students drinking was an expectation regardless of whether you were of legal age or not. My school didn’t tell us to not drink, they taught us about how to drink safely and how much alcohol is in different kinds of drinks. They taught us about consent and who to call if you’re too drunk to drive. Drug use has been a part of human life for thousands of years, people aren’t going to just stop because it’s illegal.

Much of the issue in the US (you’ll find that harm reductions programs are actually more accepted in countries across the globe) is our use of the western biomedical model which is very black and white. Patients are seen as problems to be solved and much of the interpersonal warmth and healing (emotional and spiritual) is oftentimes forgotten. This is part of why many drug rehabilitation centers aren’t as effective for a lot of people seeking treatment. As was mentioned before, if a patient has finished their time in rehab, returning to the same bleak reality they were living in before can cause a lot of emotional stress. In many cases their friends were also users and their homes were sites where drug abuse was done. Perhaps their parents or a family member was involved, maybe they’ve been cast out of their community. All of these things can push a person to relapse into the same addictive, risky behaviors.

What you can do

I absolutely love talking about all the ways we can help people living with drug addiction. Stigma is a huge barrier many people have yet to jump over. Educate yourself on drug addiction and show compassion. Your reality in life could be a faraway dream to millions of others. The opportunities I have on a daily basis are far more useful and aiding in my future than many other people. Recognize your privilege, just as I have. Internalized oppression is invisible, even to the person suffering from it. If you feel the urge to judge a person who is addicted to drugs by saying they’re being selfish, that they are choosing to do it, stop and realize there may be a part of that person’s psyche that identifies as less than, as unworthy of being better. That kind of thinking isn’t an easy hurdle to jump.

If the topic of drug abuse or addiction is brought up in conversation or in class bring up harm reduction programs and structural barriers and internalized oppression. Try to get people to take a step back from judgment and policy and question: why? Why does this happen? In a life where someone feels like they have no control, drug abuse may be an escape. Giving them the opportunity to have harm reduction and multiple resources for treatment and counseling gives these people a sense of agency and power. Instead of pointing our fingers we can lend a hand. I know I said that drug abuse is not a choice, but that is mainly because PWIDs are living in a skewed world where they feel and believe they aren’t capable of making choices, or that they don’t deserve to make choices. Please rethink the way you look at drug addiction and help create a better world for those that have yet to realize there are hands reaching out and listening ears. Let's stop the stigma and strive for healing and compassion.

For more information on harm reduction programs visit this site: https://www.hri.global/harm-reduction-decade

Cover Image Credit: Pexels

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I'm The Girl Without A 'Friend Group'

And here's why I'm OK with it


Little things remind me all the time.

For example, I'll be sitting in the lounge with the people on my floor, just talking about how everyone's days went. Someone will turn to someone else and ask something along the lines of, "When are we going to so-and-so's place tonight?" Sometimes it'll even be, "Are you ready to go to so-and-so's place now? Okay, we'll see you later, Taylor!"

It's little things like that, little things that remind me I don't have a "friend group." And it's been like that forever. I don't have the same people to keep me company 24 hours of the day, the same people to do absolutely everything with, and the same people to cling to like glue. I don't have a whole cast of characters to entertain me and care for me and support me. Sometimes, especially when it feels obvious to me, not having a "friend group" makes me feel like a waste of space. If I don't have more friends than I can count, what's the point in trying to make friends at all?

I can tell you that there is a point. As a matter of fact, just because I don't have a close-knit clique doesn't mean I don't have any friends. The friends I have come from all different walks of life, some are from my town back home and some are from across the country. I've known some of my friends for years, and others I've only known for a few months. It doesn't really matter where they come from, though. What matters is that the friends I have all entertain me, care for me, and support me. Just because I'm not in that "friend group" with all of them together doesn't mean that we can't be friends to each other.

Still, I hate avoiding sticking myself in a box, and I'm not afraid to seek out friendships. I've noticed that a lot of the people I see who consider themselves to be in a "friend group" don't really venture outside the pack very often. I've never had a pack to venture outside of, so I don't mind reaching out to new people whenever.

I'm not going to lie, when I hear people talking about all the fun they're going to have with their "friend group" over the weekend, part of me wishes I could be included in something like that. I do sometimes want to have the personality type that allows me to mesh perfectly into a clique. I couldn't tell you what it is about me, but there is some part of me that just happens to function better one-on-one with people.

I hated it all my life up until very recently, and that's because I've finally learned that not having a "friend group" is never going to be the same as not having friends.

SEE ALSO: To The Girls Who Float Between Friend Groups

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Denver's Decision To Decriminalize Magic Mushrooms Offers New Hope For Those Struggling With Mental Illness

If we want to really make progress in mental health treatment, we might have to start considering solutions that are a little bit unorthodox.


Admittedly, magic mushrooms are not the first drug that comes to mind when you think of Denver, Colorado. However, this week the residents of Denver will vote on whether to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms as part of a movement nicknamed "Decriminalize Denver." The movement is the nation's first public referendum on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Initiative 301 aims to ratify the directive that enforcing laws for personal use or possession of psilocybin mushrooms "shall be the lowest law enforcement priority in the City and County of Denver."

While the motives behind decriminalization are undeniably varied, one major reason to support the legalization of magic mushrooms is the fact that they offer a lot of potential in long-term treatment of mental illness and addiction. According to a study led by Jeremy Daniel and Margaret Haberman at the South Dakota State University College of Pharmacy in 2017, psilocybin mushrooms have high affinity for several serotonin receptors located in numerous areas of the brain, including the cerebral cortex and thalamus.

Findings like these point to the fact that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, may be an effective treatment for addiction, depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The benefits are so convincing that the FDA has granted "breakthrough therapy" status to study psilocybin for treating depression due to the fact that preliminary evidence shows "the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement over available therapy," meaning magic mushrooms might be closer to their namesake after all, bringing new hope for those who have exhausted other options and found them more harmful than helpful.

Kevin Matthews, the campaign director of "Decriminalize Denver," credits psilocybin mushrooms with "really saving [his] life" following his medical discharge from the United States Military Academy due to his major depression. Matthews says his "life had crumbled beneath [his] feet" and suffered without a solution for years until his friends introduced him to magic mushrooms. Since discovering their potential for treating his depression, he's dedicated his life to bringing others with severe mental illnesses the same opportunity.

A 2015 paper from the University of Alabama went so far as to find that "classic psychedelic use is associated with reduced psychological distress and suicidality in the United States adult population." Findings like these are imperative, especially in a time when suicide rates have risen 30% in the last decade.

If we want to really make progress in mental health treatment, we might have to start considering solutions that are a little bit unorthodox.

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