The Criminalization of Drug Use: Part 3

Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here

Part 3: A Better Path Ahead

The stigmatization of people who use drugs

It is an accepted belief in society that drug use (or, as it is often called, “drug abuse”) names users of drugs as “addicts”, or in a worse and harmful way, “junkies”. People who use drugs are painted as people who have made bad choices and are deserving of our contempt. This contempt, that is so common, may have its roots in many places, but I am no social scientist or expert on herd mentality. Yes, there are some who have come forward with different approaches and programs to dealing with what we know as addiction, and some are progressive in that they seek better solutions to an age-old issue. Clearly, “just say no” was a failure, as was the “war on drugs”. There is now a limited movement towards looking at drug use and addiction through a health equity lens, acknowledging the social determinants of health and the effect they have on outcomes like what we see in hepatitis C. Access to care and supports as required are essential.

Better options

This approach is a better path, especially in regard to stopping even greater numbers of deaths, and exposure to infectious disease like hepatitis C and HIV. An approach that looks at drug use in a different light, and this includes policies changes around the criminality of drug use as a “solution” to addiction, has great potential to see less harm to drug users and society on the whole. Some will find this as unacceptable, believing that punishment is the best way to deal with drug use. However, punishment has been shown again and again to be a less successful way to change behaviors.

Stigma & hepatitis C

Like we have seen in hep C, with the stigma of having hep C inextricably linked to drug use. We have witnessed harms caused by the belief again that we have hep C because of drug use and therefore we are responsible for our own disease. These misconceptions have diminished any urgency to address the problems, delaying access to testing and treatment over the years. Hep C has never received the public health attention it deserves; I think that hep C’s linkage to drug use and the accompanying stigma has made this way of thinking all too common in society, including medical and law enforcement communities. However, this is not an indictment of any person or group, and we are seeing some dialogue and programs that look positive, and hopefully they gain momentum.

De-stigmatizing drug use

Are we at a place in time when we can begin to de-stigmatize drug use, and hep c in the process? You may be asking yourself if I am advocating for the legalization of all drugs. I am a self-described question-asker, and in this, I mean that I am looking for answers myself. There is no question about the complexity of issues, but the criminalization of people because of what appears to be more of a medical and equity issue makes no sense to me. It is just one more harm, speaking of reducing harm, which is not only about providing needle exchange or information about safer drug use, it is much bigger than that, indeed.

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