The UK Drug Policy Commission has said that names such as “junkie” or “addict” stigmatise users and make it more difficult for them to get off drugs.
The Commission also suggests in a recent report that the policing of drugs on the streets and forcing users to go to chemists for methadone are “publicly humiliating”.
And one of the academics behind the report, Colin Blakemore of Oxford University, has stated that drug addicts faced stigma “as damaging as similar attitudes to gay people, and people with mental health issues, were 30 years ago”.
Stigma in both cases may well have declined but it still exists. I could quote a whole raft of statistics about the stigma associated with mental illness that would show exactly how bad it still is. But I digress.
Now, while I believe that language is important, this all seems a bit over the top to me.
Addiction is a complex business and there are usually a number of reasons for drug use, some of them a result of a genetic predisposition towards addictive behaviour. So to worry about name calling seems to be very much missing the point.
This latest report comes at a time when the government is considering stopping benefits for drug users who don’t accept treatment, a policy that many think would simply force users into theft and prostitution to pay for their habit.
And as part of the government’s spending cuts, drug treatment centres are to have their funding removed if they are unable to get addicts off drugs entirely. What could possibly make ministers think that the best thing for those unable to beat their addictions is to take away their treatment entirely?
No one disputes that drug use is a major problem in the UK, and not just in deprived inner city areas. It is a major concern in many rural settings too. And an increasing number of commentators are calling for the radical option of actually legalising drugs to be considered.
There are examples of countries dealing with drug policy differently from the UK and reaping good results. Portugal, for instance, has decriminalised personal drug use and treats addiction solely as a medical rather than criminal problem. Addiction problems have fallen since this policy was adopted.
Switzerland, too, with both soft-drug toleration and legal heroin being provided to long-term addicts has greatly ameliorated the drug problems it had faced.
In Scotland there were 545 drug related deaths in 2009, the second highest figure ever, following on from 2008’s figure of 574. And many believe this figure to be lower than the true number of deaths. The human consequence of drug use is enormous, as is the economic cost to the country.
I know something of addiction. My drug of choice was alcohol rather than heroin or cocaine, but the principles are the same. Beating an addition is not an easy thing to do, believe me. And the fight is never finished; the risk of relapse is never too far away.
So while drug users definitely need the type of treatment, support and rehabilitation that is much harder to access than it should be, I’m sure very few are at all worried by being called names.
They have far more pressing things to concern them.