In my senior year of high school, I became unusually used to attending funerals. Obviously death is a natural part of life and something one eventually expects to happen, but it’s not really expected when it’s James, the person who was supposed to be sitting a few rows away from you at graduation. Not when it’s Kelly, who used to walk the same halls with you and play on your U8 soccer team. Still, in my little suburban town of Andover, Massachusetts, it became commonplace to hear that someone you’d once known—someone your age, someone that could easily be you—had now died from a heroin overdose. Following two such deaths in the span of only a few months last year, our small community was bereft; however, these deaths weren’t all for nothing. On the contrary, they have illuminated a much larger issue at hand: society’s overwhelming stigmatization of heroin use and addiction. Though they were addicted to heroin, Kelly and James were two wonderfully vibrant kids, not criminals. They were merely victims of addiction, unable to seek out the help that they desperately needed because society had made their drug use their defining characteristic, making them seem like uncontrollable monsters. While their deaths are a small fraction of the epidemic that has been sweeping towns just like mine all over the country, they are perhaps some of the most compelling examples of how we have fallen short in caring for those among us who need our help the most.
Heroin addiction seems to be one of the fastest rising drug addictions in the country, affecting everyone from stars like Philip Seymour Hoffman to the average individual, a regular kid in a generic middle class neighborhood struggling with depression and anxiety. According to Lindsey Cook of U.S. News, heroin-related deaths have increased at an astounding rate of “286 percent between 2002 and 2013,” and the number of heroin addicts has doubled in the same period. With numbers like these, one might wonder why nothing seems to have worked to decrease these statistics thus far. The problem is so much time and money is spent on a “war on drugs” instead of attempting to attack the real root problem: that we prevent addicts from being able to seek help in the face of their addiction. To redress this issue, I believe we must first ask: what is society’s perception of heroin addicts, and how does this perception affect addicts’ ability to seek treatment?
In response to this question, various sources suggest that the perception of heroin addicts is an incredibly unfavorable one, caused by years of pervasive and uninformed biases. In the very definition of the word “drug addict,” we can witness society’s perception of heroin addicts: a drug addict is defined as “a person with an addiction to a drug or drugs; especially a habitual user of an illegal drug, such as a narcotic, opiate, or hallucinogen” (Simpson). As discussed in the American Journal of Health’s article on the “Language and Stigmatization in Addiction Medicine,” this very definition—and definitions like it which employ use of words like “illegal”—imply “that all addicts are criminals” (Hosea). This definition illustrates what has unfortunately become society’s standard perception of heroin addicts. As Mihaela Catalina Vicol and her colleagues explain, “popular opinion seems to follow the lingering beliefs of past generations that thought of addicts as ‘sinful or criminal,’” and assumed that “any help that they could [receive] [comes] from justice courts” (Vicol et al). What all of these opinions underscore is the stigmatization that exists in today’s perception of addicts. In today’s society, addicts are seen and treated as criminals, a scenario which impedes them from being able to seek out help because it seems that no one believes they deserve it.
As I have suggested, I agree with these statements that society bases its negative perceptions of heroin addicts on unfounded assumptions; however, in this paper I further demonstrate how these mainstream perceptions perpetuate the heroin epidemic. I explain that our perceptions ignore medical research that challenges the stereotypical view of addicts and detrimentally shape our legislative treatment of addicts. In addition, I assert that when this type of negative perception exists, it creates a dangerous lack of confidence in addicts. This lack of confidence not only teaches addicts that they aren’t worthy of help, but also enforces the idea that if they do seek help, they will ultimately be treated as criminals: they will have their rights ignored, the confidentiality of their medical records compromised, and their futures threatened. I suggest that in light of this perception, it is extremely difficult for addicts to seek treatment in good conscience. This means that without altering social perceptions, the epidemic that is heroin addiction will not only persist but also grow worse. To resolve this issue we need to destigmatize addiction, as well as rework how we treat addicts in the systems and institutions designated to help them. Thus, while many sources discuss the evolution and continuation of these negative perceptions, I insist that society can combat this harmful view to provide the help addicts so desperately need.
Society’s negative perception of addicts exacerbates the problem of heroin addiction because it neglects medical research that shows how addiction cannot so simply be boiled down to a black and white issue of being a “good” non-addicted or “bad” addicted person. In fact, many emerging studies discuss at length that addiction transcends the mere “chemical properties of the drug” and is instead largely influenced by a person’s hereditary and genetic background (Vicol, et al). In these studies, there is evidence that “some people can become addicts after even the first doses, even if they are little, whereas in the case of others the addictive behavior does not appear even in case of big doses” (Vicol, et al). What this means is that while heroin addiction may result from an initial bad decision to try the drug, the perception that heroin addicts are bad people entirely ignores that addiction can only be solved by treating it like what it is: a disease. By acting on today’s current stigmatized opinion, society exacerbates the real issue at hand, discouraging sick people to pursue necessary treatment.
Additionally, the negative perception of society also strongly influences the way the legislative system treats addicts. Because society sees heroin addicts as criminals, they then treat them as such, trying to punish them by enforcing unreasonable penalties while they are actually just creating more barriers for addicts seeking care. Under many such pieces of legislation as the 1914 Harrison Narcotic Act as well as the 1970’s Controlled Substance Act, “possession and sale of heroin is illegal in all 50 of the United States” and will result in a minimum charge of a Class A Misdemeanor, which entails a heavy fine and jail time (“Heroin”). While heroin is an incredibly dangerous drug—classified as a Schedule 1 substance on the grounds that it “has a high potential for abuse” and a high potential for “severe psychological and physical dependence”—if we want our laws to be effective, they should target traffickers rather than users. In the case of use and possession of small amounts, there should be less stark penalties, in order to remove some of the trepidation that prevents addicts from coming forward to get treatment. Perhaps by having sentences like court-mandated treatment, society could instead treat addicts like patients and give them the help they need rather than perpetuating the cycle of addiction, conviction, and return to a world of drugs later.
This is not to say that the government isn’t currently trying to resolve these issues in their own way. At the end of March this year, President Obama and several other important societal voices and knowledgeable experts met at the National RX Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta to discuss the growing epidemic of substance abuse—particularly heroin—to speak about what is being done to help addicts. In these talks, President Obama sympathized with the fears and hesitations holding addicts back, while also recognizing the short-comings of the existing system, saying that “there are steps that can be taken to get through addiction and get to the other side, and that is under-resourced” (Kounang). Obama then announced that to combat some of these existing issues, there are several upcoming initiatives aiming to supply funds to states in order to offer better treatment options for addicts. By funding Medication-Assisted Treatments (MAT), states can give addicts a better chance at seeking more effective and lasting treatments that manage withdrawals. By supplying first responders and other institutions with naloxone, which reverses opioid effects, states can respond more effectively to emergency situations and potentially minimize deaths from overdoses (“Injury Prevention and Control: Opioid Overdose”).
Though these are all steps in the right direction when trying to help heroin addicts, they still do not fully address the real problem at hand: the stigmas that prevent addicts from seeking treatment. To fully understand this, one need only look at the studies of Mihaela Catalina-Vicol and her colleagues who have found that “the voluntary demand level for specialized anti-drug treatment is extremely low compared to the number of addicts.” In other words, improvements in treatment options and availability won’t produce any results until addicts feel comfortable seeking help and the barriers of societal perception facing them are removed (Vicol, et al). Statistics as well as anecdotal evidence confirm Vicol’s and her colleagues’ assertions. For instance, addicts like Mike from Massachusetts have described this fear, explaining that in seeking treatment, “accepting help [is] a big problem because of those words or that label that you would associate [with] someone who is an addict…because [he would feel people] were judging [him] and looking down upon [him] because of…stigma” (“Mike’s Story.”). As Mike’s fears attest, until we have improved our society’s definition, perception, and treatment of addicts—until we have improved our legal approach to use and possession of heroin—addicts will still fear getting the help they need. Until then, the government can throw as much money as they want at a “War on Drugs,” or at creating better and more widely available treatment methods—but it will all still be ineffective if heroin addicts are unwilling to seek out help in the first place.
Therefore, I suggest a two-fold solution of education and revision of current laws, which together would help improve the negative stigma surrounding addicts and the stigma’s adverse effects on systems intended to bring about justice. First, in targeting the problem of negative stigma, I believe we need to change how we educate people about addiction. Much of our current system of addiction education focuses on the negative effects of addiction, which,, while important in deterring our youth from using, only places attention on the contemptuous and harmful aspects of addicts—creating an unfavorable image of an addict as a criminal or villain. In order to give a more realistic interpretation, or a more holistic picture of an addict, we need to include information about how genetic factors play a role in the cause of addiction. Furthermore we need to impart a better understanding of how addiction is like many other health issues and needs to be treated as such—not treated as if it were the fault of the addicts.’ Through integrating research of this knowledge as well as examples and specific stories of rehabilitated addicts into the education process, people can come to see the addict as a real person rather than an enemy. Consequently, people may be able to have a more informed and understanding approach to addicts, and can learn to treat them with more compassion and respect so that addicts can feel more comfortable coming forward to seek help. Additionally, by allowing this reeducation to inform how we structure our legislative system in the future, addicts may not fear the consequences of seeking help as much as they do currently. By changing our laws concerning possession and use of drugs like heroin so that the penalty for possession of small amounts results in court mandated treatment—reserving jail time and other heavier penalties for those involved in trafficking drugs—then addicts would be more willing to step forward knowing that what awaits them is help, not incarceration. While no one solution will fix the growing problem of heroin addiction, by starting with how we view and treat addicts in these ways, we can lay the foundation for a smoother road to recovery.
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Cook, Lindsey. “The Heroin Epidemic, in 9 Graphs.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 15 Aug. 2015. Web. 25 May 2016.
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Hosea, Devin F. “LANGUAGE AND STIGMATIZATION IN ADDICTION MEDICINE.” American Journal of Public Health 104.8 (2014): e1-e2. ProQuest. Web. 5. Apr. 2016.
“Injury Prevention and Control: Opioid Overdose.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Mar. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.
Kounang, Nadia. “Obama: Addiction Is a Preventable Disease.” CNN. Cable News Network, Mar-Apr. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.
“Mike’s Story.” Youtube. Mass Department of Public Health, 04 Nov. 2015. Web. 25 May 2016.
Simpson, J.A., and E.S.C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989. Print.
Vicol, Mihaela Catalina, et al. “Drug Addiction – it is just a Medical Problem?” Revista Romana de Bioetica 6.4 (2008): 102-107. ProQuest. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.