Attitudes drive drug policy, not facts, says Global Commission

12 January 2018

Language matters. Changing how people who use drugs are treated requires changing how we speak about them.

Drug abuse with people sharing same needle and syringes

Terms such ‘drug user’, ‘drug abuser’, ‘addict’ and ‘junkie’ should be avoided as they are derogatory and dehumanise people who take drugs, fuelling harmful drug policies which affect their health and human rights.

These views are voiced in a new report launched on 9 January by the Global Commission on Drug Policy – a leading advocate speaking to the failures of the international drug control regime and the repressive laws it has inspired.

‘The world drug PERCEPTION problem – countering prejudices about people who use drugs’ focusses on how current perceptions of drugs and people who use them have led to an unrealistic and stigmatising, rather than a pragmatic and evidence-based approach to drug policy.

According to the report, drug reform is hard to carry out because current policies and practices are often based on moralistic or impassioned views, instead of on factual discussion around health and rights.

A notable example of this is the dialogue around harm reduction. Despite evidence and backing by major bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), punitive drug policy limits access to vital harm reduction services such as needle and syringe exchange programmes, increasing new HIV infections. It also limits access to opioid substitution therapy, voluntary testing and counselling services for HIV, hepatitis and STIs, as well as antiretroviral treatment programmes for those living with HIV.

Ruth Dreifuss, Chair of the Commission and former President of Switzerland, said, “Whether you think of someone and refer to them as a person who uses drugs or a “junkie” makes a huge difference in how you and society will treat them. This vicious cycle, which has been fuelled for decades, must be broken.”

These same moral views also drive discrepancies in how we legally see certain drugs – with drugs that do the most harm, such as alcohol and ketamine, not subject to international control.

Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand said “The national and international classification of drugs has little or no correlation to their scientifically-assessed harms, yet it has played a large role in shaping current perceptions of drugs and their potential dangers.”

The report concludes with six recommendations, among which are a call to policymakers to change perceptions of drugs and people who use them by providing correct information, and for opinion leaders to promote the use of non-stigmatising and non-discriminatory language.

The health and rights of people who use drugs should also take priority – with healthcare workers promoting evidence-based treatment, prevention and harm reduction services. Acts of harassment based on negative perceptions of people who use drugs should also be stopped.

“The prejudices faced by people who use drugs and the criminalization of their drug use are a violation of their citizens’ rights. In order to change how people who use drugs are treated, we need to change how we speak about them and how we consider their use in a comprehensive manner, including all social and economic determinants linked to it,” said José Ramos-Horta, former President of Timor-Leste and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

The Global Commission is a leading voice in human and science-based drug policy with the aim of reducing harm from drugs for both people and society. The organisation comprises 25 political leaders and leading thinkers from around the globe – including former UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, entrepreneur Richard Branson, and former heads of state from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and the UK.

Written by Caitlin Mahon

Content Specialist - HIV & Sexual Health