Addicts are People Too: Choosing Compassion over Judgement

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Addicts are people, too. This is sadly something that many people in the cannabis community seem to be forgetting, throwing around the  words “druggie,” “meth-head,” and “junkie” as though a single factor (whether or not a person has used certain drugs) determines any human’s worth.

Let me make something perfectly clear: being addicted to a substance does not make someone an inherently bad person. It simply makes them someone who is struggling with an addiction. It’s time that we all stop treating addicts as though they are the “other.”

SmokerOne of the easiest ways to unify people is to rally around the idea of another group, an “other,” who is different. That “other” is viewed as less than human, as dangerous, as a threat. For too long in our society, people struggling with addictions have been treated as an “other,” openly disparaged and looked down on in mainstream culture. They are blamed for crime, for their own destitute situations, and for any number of unrelated societal ills. It’s time for that to change.

Addiction is a disease. Most doctors, both medical and psychological, agree that addiction is roughly 50% genetic, 50% exposure/enculturation/education/personal decision. Some people are able to party hard for a year or two during college and then quit and live totally normal lives. They can do cocaine, opiates, heroin, you name it. Sure, they may be hooked for a bit, but eventually they will walk away clean with only a moderate struggle – or sometimes without any at all.

But then there is the other side of the spectrum: the person who tries something once and immediately develops a fixation. People susceptible to addiction can end up addicted to all kinds of things that effect their chemistry, from sex, porn, and food to tobacco, religion, and skydiving.

Studies frequently find correlations between increased risk of addictive behavior and childhood abuse or neglect. There are no definitive figures available, because most abuse is never reported and many addicts are reticent to self-identify as such, but a substantial portion of people suffering from addiction have likely been subject to physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse in their lives. In a classic study decades ago, 84% of people with substance abuse/addiction issues who responded self-reported experiencing various forms of childhood abuse.

In these cases, although the individuals are typically considered “recreational” drug users (which means their addiction did not begin as the result of treating a medical condition), their addiction is clearly the result of self-medicating to deal with the crappy hand they’ve been dealt in life. Many addicts struggle with feelings of low self-worth and hopelessness, even before they descend into the shadowy underworld of addiction. Once they’re addicted, they internalize society’s constant barrage of insults and insinuations. They know that in the average person’s mind, they are worth less than a violent felon. In fact, our society loves to tell narratives of reformed criminals, but addicts are generally left out of those stories (unless they can blame all their criminal activity on their addiction, in which case their story may become popular).

If the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal has taught us anything, it should be that social stigma and legal threats decrease the likelihood that an addict will seek treatment for their addiction. Once possession, addiction, and use were being treated as public health issues and not as criminal ones, people stuck in the cycle of drug abuse were finally willing to seek treatment and work to defeat their chemical demons.

heroinAs Laurel Dewey explained in a recent Ladybud article, in many cases cannabis can be an exit drug. People with addictions to more harmful substances, from meth and opiates to alcohol, may well find that cannabis provides them just enough relief to remain clean and free from their addiction. In order for them to consider this treatment option, however, the cannabis community needs  to make itself a safe space for addicts. This can be incredibly trying for some members of our community, as they have spent years trying to differentiate cannabis and cannabis users from these harder drugs and their users, thanks to the ridiculous classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance.

To these old-timers, let me remind you that public opinion has shifted drastically in the last decade, and most Americans are now well aware of the fact that heroin in is no way similar in function, danger, or addictiveness to cannabis. Opening our community and our activism to include people addicted to harder drugs, especially to those actively working to overcome their addiction, will only make our movement stronger and will truly demonstrate our commitment to the ideal of compassion, a concept that receives a lot of lip service in cannabis circles.

True compassion must, of necessity, include those that are denigrated,  forgotten, and denied by mainstream society. The addicts of today are the lepers of yesteryear; those sad souls whose ailment makes them social untouchables, beyond redemption in the eyes of most people. I have met people who have overcome addictions of all kinds, from opiate prescriptions and heroin to alcohol and meth, and they are some of the strongest, bravest people I know.

In the end, we have to make the choice as a community and a culture to turn our backs on terms and ideas that actively damage others. Our choice of words when describing an addict matter: they matter to our listeners who internalize our idea of the addict’s worth (as established by our diction), they matter the addicts who hear our rhetoric and feel devalued, and they matter to ourselves as speakers, because we too, may internalize the idea of the addict as the “other,” or as someone worth less than anyone else. They’re not.

Addicts are people too, and we need to start treating them that way.