Decriminalization isn’t enough — drug stigma needs to go

Shaming people who use drugs is counterproductive

Various drugs and paraphernalia surrounding a large marijuana leaf. Includes pills, cocaine, a joint, heroin, and a bong
ILLUSTRATION: Ananya Singh / The Peak

By: Vee Babbar, SFU Student

Content warning: mentions of drug use and addiction.

BC’s new drug decriminalization laws are a considerable step forward. While some may view this change as too “liberal,” let’s clarify that decriminalization differs from legalization. Essentially, it exempts the province of British Columbia from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This exemption helps reduce the barriers that prevent people from accessing lifesaving medical support and services associated with using the included drugs, such as opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. That said, the BC government states decriminalization doesn’t mean these drugs will be permitted for commercial sale. Most concerns over these new changes overlook the reality of the situation. Stigma around drug use is widespread in the media, and in common perceptions surrounding addiction. Decriminalization doesn’t do enough to address this stigma. 

The assumption that certain drugs are nothing but addictive and harmful for users is very prevalent today. Some people who need drugs like opioids for medical treatments refuse or hide their use due to societal pressure, and the fear of a damaged reputation. The uncontrolled and unprescribed exploitation of these drugs through illegal sources has also contributed to stigma. However, drugs like LSD, mushrooms, alcohol, and cannabis do not receive the same judgment within society, even though they can still be linked to mental health conditions like psychosis and addiction for some people.

The media has a significant impact on shaping public perception of drug addiction. The way that substance use disorders are portrayed on screen can either reinforce negative stereotypes or challenge viewers to address them. Such negative portrayals in films and TV shows often exploit people who use drugs by depicting them as criminals and failures. For instance, the movie Requiem for a Dream sensationalizes people who use drugs, and portrays them as unredeemable. On the other hand, media that takes a more nuanced and empathetic approach can reduce stigma by highlighting the complex nature of addiction and contributing factors such as mental illness, houselessness, and trauma.

One media analysis from 2022 suggested ways to address and discuss addiction without stigmatizing it. They recommend the use of person-first language, which means not using words like “tippler” or “addict” and instead describing individuals as a “person with alcohol use disorder” or a “person with an addiction.” Moreover, they encouraged the media to preserve anonymity and have a “dispassionate, fact-based, balanced discussion on substance use.” These discussions should extend beyond the media we consume, as stigma is shaped by the way we view substances and those who use them.

The National Post wrote about BC’s drug crisis by arguing that shaming people for drug use would make them “change for the better.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. A Harvard Medical School publication states that stigma “can lead to unnecessary suffering and more overdose deaths” by discouraging people from asking for help, and impacting the quality of medical care they receive. We need to recognize these barriers and actively work against the shame associated with drug use.

Shifting the way we perceive drug use as a whole will lead to a greater understanding of addiction as a chronic illness rather than a personal failure. It will increase support for evidence-based treatment involving recently decriminalized drugs. People who use drugs are just that — people. Decriminalization is only the starting point in addressing the barriers faced by those who use substances.