In my life, many family members, friends, and elders have warned me against drug use by belittling those who are addicted to drugs. Words like junkie, derelict, waste, and zombie are commonly accepted words that are used to denigrate drug addicts (and that’s the tame end of drug user insults). The common stance, from what I always saw growing up, was disrespect and disgust toward people addicted to drugs. The importance of respect for these individuals, always seemed to be lost.
I studied public policy at the University of Nevada, and one of my favorite frameworks for understanding the legislative process is Ingram and Schneider’s Social Construction Framework. By looking at the social constructions, that is the framings and structures through which we understand target populations, of those who will receive the cost or benefit of a policy, we can understand how society thinks about who is deserving and who is undeserving of aid. The framework helps us think about power in politics, and whether we like or dislike specific people or characteristics of people.
Drug addicts, in almost all examples of the Social Construction Framework, are viewed as deviants. They have no political power, and are not seen as deserving. Consequently, it is politically popular to put more punishments on drug addicts. Policies which aid drug addicts and provide some type of benefit to them are politically costly.
Unfortunately, as Johan Hari explains in Chasing the Scream, this framing can lead to isolation among drug addicts, making it harder for them to ever recover. Hari quotes Ruth Dreifuss as saying, “Prevention begins with respect.”
To help people recover from drug addiction, and indeed to stop people who use drugs from developing addictions, we have to show them respect. We have to acknowledge their humanity, and we have to be willing to work with them, rather than to only punish them further. When describing Dreifuss’s views, Hari writes, “She had always believed that everyone – no matter how seemingly lost – can be empowered if you do it right.”
We may never be able to help everyone completely overcome addiction. We may never be able to stomp out addiction and drug abuse entirely, but we can work with people and show them respect, even if they have made mistakes and even if they do something we don’t want to see, such as abuse drugs and develop drug addictions. We can work with everyone to help them become better and more well adjusted versions of themselves, but it requires respect and a recognition of their humanity. We can’t just see people as deviants and heap piles of punishment on them, and then wonder why they never rise up. Not everyone is going to be a perfect success and some will still fail, but they will always deserve respect and to be treated as fully human. If we can’t provide those two pieces, then we will certainly fail to reduce drug use and addiction, and we will continue living with people we classify as outcasts and deviants.