We have pretty much two ways of talking about drugs. On the one hand, we talk about drug abuse as a mental health issue. Those suffering from it require compassion and medical support. On the other hand, we talk about ‘junkies’ and consider all drug users ‘scum’. Assumptions, not necessarily true, are made about “people like that.”
The first line of argument prioritizes compassion and a generous belief in people; the second judgment and a pessimistic belief in peoples’ worst. The first looks to reintegrate troubled people into our community. The second looks to wall itself off from them.
Ask yourself: if it was someone you loved with a problem, which discourse would be more helpful?
When it comes to cannabis users, assumptions abound: lazy, irresponsible, stupid, unmotivated. However, cannabis users are like any other interest group in society: made up of a broad range of people, most of them normal, responsible folk.
And this stigma plays a big part in why you don’t see them. Not wanting to be stigmatized (and let’s not forget criminalized!) this majority keep themselves to themselves. As Abe Gray, founder of the Whakamana Cannabis Museum in Dunedin says, “The people who aren’t having any problems – we never hear about them… And they would never ever want us to hear about them, because they don’t want to be stigmatised.”
Most cannabis users are just like you. They have kids, jobs, debt, parents. They like the outdoors, music, good food, and fixing up their homes. They have good days, and they have bad days. They walk among us and we don’t even know. Because they don’t fit the stereotype.
What if a new way of talking about cannabis, and drugs in general, came about? One where we take all the moralizing out and just accept the idea of drug use as a risky activity as we do sky diving or motor sport or skiing? Drug users aren’t bad people; they are risk takers. Drugs aren’t good or bad; there are just good or bad ways of using them. When people hit hard times, they don’t deserve judgment, they deserve compassion. If we removed that stigma, what might happen?
Well, the host of negative effects that come from the stigma attached to cannabis and other illegal drugs might start to fall away.
The people with a problem, who’ve been deterred from getting help, might be able to open up to loved ones, knowing they no longer holding stigmatizing assumptions about ‘druggies’. They would know that they could go to a doctor or a nurse and be unafraid of being judged, as research shows they are so often now.
The people devalued, marginalised on the fringe of society, may start to be able to come back inside. The assumption that drug addicts just don’t care would be challenged and understood in its complexity: society plays a part in this because it hasn’t cared for them. As this changed and addicts’ care for society grew, associated anti-social behaviour would lessen.
The social stigma attached to drug use that turns into ‘self stigma’ – society’s negative assumptions internalised, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy – would abate. Tell drug users they’re scum, don’t be surprised when some decide they’re scum. Bring on more anti-social behaviour. However, tell drug addicts that ‘Yes, you’re in a bad place now, but that doesn’t mean you’re bad, and this can change,’ and you offer people hope.
Finally, the effect that stigma has on the physical and mental health of drug users would be lessened. Research in the US has shown that stigma towards drug users can have an effect on their physical and mental health. Similar research has reached the same conclusions about the effect of prejudice against ethnic minorities. Those who feel more highly stigmatized have worse health issues. The paper concludes there is a “need for debate on the relative risks and benefits of stigma and discrimination in this context.”
It can be argued that the stigma towards drug users acts as a deterrent to using. Usage rates for alcohol compared to cannabis, the most commonly used illicit drug, back that. However, if drugs are a potentially harmful, addictive activity, why can’t we just let that stand on its own as a deterrent? Just as the high crash rate stands on its own as a deterrent to owning a motorcycle. Why do we have to demonize a group of people with a lie that says they’re all useless no-hopers? Why can’t we just let knowledge and education stand on its own? And if people get in a bad place, help them out, as we do with all other risk takers.
Because the backlash from stigma is a number of users see through the assumptions, and see that ‘Hey, not all drug users are bad people’ and that most people use marijuana with no problems. They get the idea that all of it is lies and become cynical and marginalised in a whole different way. Distrust of police and authority follows and they refrain from getting fully involved in their community because their community, unfortunately, thinks they’re a bad person.
Consider again if it was someone you loved with a problem. Let’s find new ways to talk about drugs and end the stigma associated with them and drug users.
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