Opinion: Fear and loathing: stereotyping drug users has become a deadly matter

Opinion: Fear and loathing: stereotyping drug users has become a deadly matter

By SJ Finn

In 1746, drinking coffee was on the rise in Sweden. Officials weren’t happy, calling coffeehouses ‘dens of subversion where malcontents planned revolts’. King Frederick issued an edict against ‘the misuses and excesses’ of coffee drinking, only to be outdone by his successor, Gustav III, who banned coffee altogether in 1756.

Not surprisingly, the bootlegging of this so-called unhealthy item became a profitable and popular profession, while officials were kept busy conducting ‘coffee raids’.

The confiscation of coffee cups and saucers, is a reminder of how laws can be ‘of their time’, if not a bit wacky. It is also a reminder that the build up to such a ban began as concern about sedition, about the gathering together of ‘unwanted kinds’.

Less clear is the size of the mess the prohibitionists foisted upon the coffee drinkers, something that in years to come we will have to evaluate in regard to the current set of circumstances faced by those who use recreational drugs. But one fact, just as it was in the case of coffee, has been unutterably qualified: drugs, for good or for bad, are not going to disappear from our landscape.

Acknowledged officially for the first time at this year’s United Nations General Assembly on drugs, it was agreed that the slogan, ‘A drug free world, we can do it!’ is no longer viable. It’s a welcome if not small win for those of us who believe that abstinence on a grand scale, is an ill-conceived idea that has been doing a great deal of harm.

However, the question then becomes one of management. And in order to manage the drug conundrum better, it is vital that the information being given to the general population about substances and their harms – information that fuels our current state of play in regard to drug use – is properly handled.

Every debate around so-called current social issues – whether it’s marriage equality, immigration, or the euthanasia campaign – has its challenges. Freedom of speech is held up as the last great right even if it is being cast around as the last great lie about an issue.

With this in mind, there is no doubt that nasty things would be said about people who use drugs if the laws surrounding the topic were to be openly debated. Scaremongering and propaganda would no doubt take centre stage. There’s certainly plenty of historical evidence to support the fact that despite the slight waxing and waning of criminal punishments for particular substances, the tactics used to convince people of the inherent evil of these substances, and the deplorable beings that humans who take them become, have remained fairly consistent.

In the 1930s we had the Reefer Madness campaign in response to cannabis use, in the 1990s we had the seemingly innocuous but extremely divisive, ‘Just Say No’ campaign in regard to all and any recreational drug-taking, and in 2012, there were the ‘ice destroys lives’ graphic TV ads about ‘ice’ use. All of these promotions insist that people are not only ruled by their addiction, but that they will end up either dead or mad.

Nobody would disagree that the stakes are high, especially when we talk about deaths from drug use. But is it time we put some thought into exactly what we’re getting out of painting drug users as ruined individuals whose lives have become a nightmare? Yes, I agree with the premise that for every moral panic, money follows, but what do we know of the long term negative effects of these campaigns that drive our moral panic?

August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day. It is a difficult day for many as people remember friends and family members who have died. And, given the thousands of deaths that have occurred on our soil over the years, the number of bereft is in the tens of thousands. They are people whose grief is complicated by the type of death their loved-one experienced, and, depending on the circumstances, it’s a thorny mix. Shame, guilt, anger and frustration provide the ingredients for a difficult period after losing someone who was cherished.

Not surprisingly there are also complicating factors for those of us trying to keep people who use drugs, alive. In our lucky-country, whether you believe that the responsibility for harm from drug use lies with the drug user or the state or somewhere in between, only the depraved – and there are a few of them out there – think someone deserves to die from using drugs.

However, the interaction between what people think of drug users and the options currently in place for saving lives cannot be denied. From decriminalization and legalization to Naloxone provision and real-time monitoring, plus, of course, supervised consumption rooms, there is no lack of options for decisive action. So why, given in broad terms at least, drug use is not on the increase, are we seeing death rates in Australia grow rather than diminish?

The reality, to a larger rather than lesser degree, is that the public’s view of people who use drugs has a significant impact on whether the measures that we know would work – i.e. all of the above – are taken up.

And that’s where the problem lies. We seem to have a tussle on our hands between the messages that our society produces (made with the good intention to keep people away from using drugs) and the harm those same messages may well be generating. The question must be asked: Are the campaigns that create fear and loathing through the use of stereotyping, able to justify their existence if they can’t truly say what their long term effect is?

So, while much has been written on stigma and its divisive effects, it’s worth pondering how things got so black and white in regard to identifying people who take drugs? As it turns out, there’s a lot riding on shaping our view of the drug user as undeserving. It also turns out that the process has been carefully tracked, and the reasons for these laws and the need to prop them up by stigmatising people are not pretty.

When the erosion of people’s rights – which is how I would put it – to take substances, occurred, it did so in a steady and misanthropic manner, and has far more to do with racism than care, economic control than protection, and politics rather than forethought.

However, to net the profits from these laws, it also follows that you must create a set of identifying characteristics that make this group ‘real’ or ‘actual’. Terms such as ‘addict’ and ‘junkie’, help. But, on their own, they are not enough, because if you can’t see the individuals who should be ascribed these labels, then what use are those terms in identifying them.

In this way, stereotyping has become a potent force, one that should not be underestimated for sectioning people off from the mainstream. Even for those who would say that they no longer believe that the “war on drugs” is the right way to proceed, there is still the question of their response – both on a figurative and a practical level – when faced with what they think a person using drugs deserves.

So, as we enter the second half of a century of prohibition, it’s vital to think about the outcomes of employing retrograde, dumbed-down slogans and images to put off those we think are at risk of taking drugs.

Even more seriously, we have to query whether misrepresenting people in our efforts to stem harm is causing real harm to those who are in need of programs and action and real responses that would save a significant number of lives.


SJ Finn is the founder of International Overdose Awareness Day. She can be found at www.sjfinn.com

August 31st, 2016|