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Drug Use & Stigma

October 6th, 2020

Drug usage nowadays is a bit of a mixed bag: there are those who will preach the good word of sobriety, those that will likewise extol non-sobriety, those that will shun others if they know about them using drugs, and those that will shun “boring” non-drug users. Regardless of where or if you might fall into these generalizations, one element of drug usage has vastly changed - the stigma behind it.  In earlier decades, there was great stigma around any and all drug usage, whether it was recreational or medicinal did not always matter. Simply taking care of yourself by means of compromising your sobriety and natural state of thinking was frowned upon, albeit if only silently. Though, there of course were delineations between such drugs as marijuana and heroin. The stigmatizations of these drugs were especially exacerbated by the War on Drugs and other similar campaigns. Moreover, language has also played a sizable role in continuing stigmatization. Terms like “junkie,” “crackhead,” and “stoner” as a few examples dehumanize anyone struggling with addiction or even one who may have tried drugs just once. All forms of stigmatization, especially verbal, play a role in an addict’s life—  lowering their self-esteem and mental health, and increasing their risk of drug- related harm.

What’s especially important to know is that the bulk of people who try any type of drug aren’t problematic with said drug and do not develop a physical dependence. Public perception of drug use is greatly skewed towards negative thinking, despite not often being based on scientific evidence. These attitudes serve to help no one, and can hinder an addict’s road to recovery, as they may deem it a lost cause and hedonistically give into their desires.

Two figures who have been absolutely instrumental in lowering the stigma behind drug usage are Ethan Nadelmann and Gabor Mate. Without the continuing strides made by these great people, drug stigma would be far more present in today’s age. Ethan Nadelmann, most known for founding and directing the Drug Policy Alliance, has not only been instrumental in the destigmatization of drug usage, but also in reforming drug policy in both the United States and internationally. He has spent three decades advocating for marijuana legalization, ending mass incarceration, and treating drug use and addiction as mental health matters rather than criminal justice. Nadelmann’s advocacy began when he was teaching public affairs and politics at Princeton University in the late 1980s. Later on, he founded The Lindesmith Center, a drug policy institute, and his magnum opus, the Drug Policy Alliance.

Moreover, Nadelmann and his associates have had tremendous influence on major drug policy reform campaigns since 1996. These issues included medical marijuana, marijuana legalization, prison reform, drug treatment, and reform of civil asset forfeiture laws. Not only is public opinion being shifted towards a more understanding and less harsh way of thinking, but the law will also be changing accordingly. This team also has succeeded in reforming state and federal laws concerning drug sentencing, drug treatment, access to sterile syringes to reduce HIV/AIDS, prevention of overdose fatalities, and all aspects of marijuana policy. Since recently stepping down as director of the DPA, Nadelmann has shifted part of his focus to issues concerning tobacco, nicotine harm reduction, and vaping e- cigarettes.

The next major figure who has accomplished much in the realm of drug usage and stigma is Dr. Gabor Mate. His involvement in understanding drug recovery and usage stems from his private family practice in East Vancouver, which he ran for over 20 years. Later down the line, he worked for Vancouver Hospital and the Portland Hotel where he interacted with patients that suffered from a combination of mental illness, drug addiction, and HIV. As a result of these mentioned experiences and numerous others, Mate has written several novels exploring people’s mental and physical healths and how their childhood is a large determinant of these.

In these writings, Mate often relates the neurological and psychological mechanisms concerning one’s self with the greater need for social change around these subjects. He has described “early adversity”— stress, mistreatment, and childhood abuse in particular— as largely increasing susceptibility to addiction. Mate is also incredibly outspoken about the “war on drugs,” arguing that it punishes people for having been abused and further envelopes one in their addictions. Some of Mate’s other arguments that further drug de-stigmatization and rehabilitation revolves around environmental causes, such as the need to improve child welfare policies in the United States and for better support for families overall.

Without the contributions from both of these great figures, societal opinion and overall treatment of drug usage/addiction may not have changed for the better. Thanks to their effort and achievements, more is being done to help those suffering from a wide array of addictions, from both a medical standpoint and political standpoint. Specifically, the lessening of discriminatory practices and policies in regards to drug use will combat any sort of self-stigmatization among addicts trying to get help. According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.5 million Americans aged 12 and older had a substance use disorder in the previous year, while only 2.5 million received the specific treatment they needed. If you or someone you know is facing addiction, please seek support and outside help. If someone you know has not sought help because of the stigmas they face, extend your own help and give them the support they need to improve their conditions.

Windmill Wellness Ranch exists to provide the highest quality of care for those who suffer from addiction. Strategically placed on a sprawling 75-acre ranch, we provide an environment that allows patients to get away from any stigma and judgements from the outside world. If you or a loved-one suffers from drug or alcohol-related addictions, contact our admissions hotline to speak with an admissions specialist today.