Drugs, Stigma and Harms

I am moved to write this commentary by the situation in the Philippines, where the president, Rodrigo Duterte, not only rose to power urging his people to kill drug “addicts”, but has now turned a blind eye, even encouraged, the extra-judicial killings of more than 8000 drug users, their families and friends.

This is a tragedy, not only for those who have been killed, but for human rights advocates and for anyone who uses drugs. How did we arrive at this situation?

The legacy of society’s decades-long (and ineffective) “war on drugs”, coupled with centuries of stereotypes and misinformation about drugs and drug users, has created an intense stigma around people who use drugs, built on a morally laden hysteria often directed at those least able to defend themselves.

We don’t kill drug users in New Zealand but the punishments we do mete out are also born of stigmatisation.

Consider, for example, the case in May of a kindergarten teacher who admitted to her employer she had in the past smoked cannabis. She was taken to a tribunal, and in order to continue working as a teacher she has to be drug tested every three months for a year, and during that time notify any new employer of the ruling.

We may nod our heads and utter words like, “Well, she’s a ‘druggie’, serves her right”, but here are some other things to think about.

The woman was never intoxicated at work so why was this even considered an issue? Why was she reported and disciplined for taking a drug the Ministry of Health says 1.4 million New Zealanders have tried? Are we now going to breathalyse people at work who drink alcohol in their spare time and test tobacco users who look after children – especially when tobacco use has been linked to cot deaths? Unthinkable, right?

The same people who get all red in the face pontificating about drug users forget they too are drug users. We are surrounded by drugs, both legal and illegal, and all have the potential to cause harm.

If we treat someone who has smoked cannabis in the past in this way, spare a thought for those truly vilified in society: those who are addicted to illegal drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine. We attack them, ostracise them, shut them away, and think this will actually stop their addictions. This dominant approach intensifies addiction and makes it harder for people to ask for help.

“But,” you may say, “you in your academic ivory tower, what do you know of the real world? ‘Addicts’ are difficult, dangerous, they cause harm, they deserve to be punished.”

I can wholeheartedly agree “addicts” are difficult, sometimes dangerous and can cause harm – I used to work with drug users, those who were homeless, those who had been abused at home, abused in state care and were now abused on the streets, and they were sometimes difficult and dangerous.

Most of all, though, they were just people: ordinary people, nice people, scary people, angry people, hurt people, funny people, sad people, like we all are.

My cousin (a drug user) was stabbed to death by his flatmate suffering paranoid delusions from amphetamine use that exacerbated his underlying mental health problems, so I have seen the pain drug use and addiction can cause – in my Auntie’s eyes in the first few months of searing grief, as she could hardly look at me because I look so much like her dead son. The way we currently deal with drug use and addiction didn’t help these two young men.

Is increasing their pain, marginalising and criminalising those with addictions the answer? Well, it hasn’t worked so far, has it? Illegal drugs are cheaper, more available and purer than ever before.

Prohibition of drugs has not stopped people using or having problems with them.

An urgent re-examination of attitudes and responses to those who use drugs is necessary. Why? Because the evidence shows us that in following the tired and worn path of prohibition we are not effectively tackling the problems associated with drug use and addiction.

Fiona Hutton is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. This piece was first published in The Dominion Post, 28 July 2017.

Share This: