Why so much discrimination against People who Use Drugs?

Regional and the international heads of state gathering in Manila, Philippines, for the 31st ASEAN Summit must resort to a public health and rights-based approach to drug use.

By Anjay Kumar KC

President – Coalition of Drug Users in Nepal

Why so much discrimination against People who Use Drugs?

As with wars throughout history, the negative consequences of the “drug war” fall heaviest on the most vulnerable, excluded and marginalized. Drug Users have a lot in common with other marginalized groups, such as LBGTQ’s , sex workers, people with disabilities and asylum seekers. Most people have never met them and know very little about the realities of their lives. Where there is a void of factual information, stigma and prejudice often rush in to fill the space[1], propagating a social stereotype that assumes all drug-dependent people are the same.

Many people don’t like drug users and that this dislike hinders the health prospects, social integration and future employment for this group[2]. I’ve seen absolutely unspeakable acts of discrimination against people who’ve done nothing wrong because medical and/or police personnel ignorantly assume all “ junkies” are the same.

Public perception towards people who use drugs or are dependent on drugs is fueled, echoed and amplified by inaccurate and offensive media reporting. Dependent drug users are one of the few populations that media commentators can still insult and demean with a large degree of impunity[3].

On 18th February 2011 the Irish Independent published a column by Ian O’Doherty that said. “Let’s get a few things straight – I hate junkies more than anything else. I hate their greed, their stupidity, their constant sense of self-pity, the way they can justify their behaviour, the damage they do to their own family and to others.” He added that: “If every junkie in this country were to die tomorrow I would cheer.” A complaint about the column made to the Irish Press Ombudsman was later upheld.

Such pervasive media portrayals that demonize people who use drugs have spawned policies that systematically discriminate against drug users. The taboo associated with drug use is so widespread that even many people who support drug policy reform hold negative assumptions about people whose drug use they consider abusive[4].

The truth is some drug users are treacherous people, just like any non-drug users can be. It’s important to recognize that addiction, once it takes hold, is usually not logical or rational.

However, most drug users I know are decent people trying to get by just dealing with a drug addiction. For every drug user you spot there are several you don’t even notice. I’ve known drug users who were professionals, devoted parents and those who dedicate themselves to making the world a better place, including some of the most creative musicians and scientists. We’re not all liars and thieves[5].

Stopping drugs and then having to dealing with discrimination is also still a real part of life. The use of stigmatising terms such as “junkie” and “addict” is proving a major obstacle to the rehabilitation and recovery of problem drug users, according to a report published by a leading drug policy think-tank[6].

People who use drugs are one of the last remaining social minorities against whom discrimination is encouraged and it’s reflected in their poor health seeking behavior resulting in deprived health outcomes. There is a huge emphasis on treatment[7] but those who stop using drugs without treatment are not recorded in the official statistics. The statistics also don’t comprehensively record those who relapse months or years after treatment. Media coverage of drug-related deaths also reinforces the discriminatory “evil” drug users image. Also, while fatalities resulting from alcohol or prescription drugs go largely unreported, illegal drug deaths receive significant press attention[8].

One of the unintended consequences of international drug control is the way we perceive and deal with the users of drugs that have been made illegal. A system appears to have been created in which those who fall into the web of dependence find themselves excluded and marginalized from the social mainstream, tainted with a moral stigma, and often unable to find treatment, even when they may be motivated to want it[9].

Inaccurate and crude [mis]understandings of drugs have fed through into how people who use drugs are seen: the widely-held, generalizing, and unscientific position that illicit drugs are ‘bad’ informs the understanding that people who use drugs are bad too. Drug use is viewed as unacceptable and criminal, therefore people who use drugs, by default, are stigmatized as deviant criminals[10].

Source: http://www.unaids.org/en/resources/documents/2016/do-no-harm

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