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We are People – Not Addicts, Criminals, Inmates, and Convicts

October 20, 2014 – Media coverage of drugs and drug policy has grown much more sophisticated in the past few years. Yet many media outlets — even some of the most well-meaning ones — still often use inaccurate, offensive, or just plain absurd language that would be considered unthinkable when covering other issues.

Last year, the Associated Press made waves when it announced that it would no longer use the term “illegal immigrant.” This fits with the AP’s and other outlets’ efforts to cast aside labeling terms that define people by a single behavior or condition — and to instead use terms that humanize the people they are writing about.

Well, the AP is now working on the 2015 edition of the Stylebook and has issued an open call for suggestions for new or updated entries.  A few could make the cut and get integrated into the 2015 guide.

At the Drug Policy Alliance, we have long sought to use humanizing language that doesn’t equate someone’s involvement with drugs or the criminal justice system as the sum of their identity – and we are asking the AP to join us.

First off, we have to stop using objectifying and dehumanizing language to describe people who use drugs or who struggle with drugs. The term “addict” as a noun is totally outdated and should be replaced with “person dependent on drugs” or “people who struggle with addiction.” The use of “addict” by some people in recovery themselves doesn’t make it OK to reduce anyone else’s humanity.  As my colleague Meghan Ralston recently wrote in “The End of the Addict“:

“The sense of fear, loathing, otherness and “less than” created by that word far outweighs any benefits of using linguistic shorthand to quickly describe a person. “Addict” is a word so singularly loaded with stigma and contempt that it’s somewhat appalling that we continue to let it be used so easily and indiscriminately. Even in a chaotic stage of drug use, we are not “other.” We are women, we are someone’s daughter, we continue to laugh, we continue to like jazz and cheeseburgers and comfy pajamas. We cry, we get so lonely, we hate sitting in traffic. Addiction can be wretched, no question, but we do not ever stop being human beings, even during the times in our lives when we are dependent on drugs.”

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. The point is to be as specific as possible without reducing a person’s entire identity to a single characteristic, behavior, or experience. Here are a few other examples:

  •     Instead of “drug offender” try “person arrested for drugs” or “person convicted of a drug law violation.”
  •     Instead of “ex-con” try “formerly incarcerated person.”
  •     Instead of “drug injector” try “person who injects drugs.”
  •     Instead of “drug user” and “drug dealer” try “person who uses drugs” or “person who sells drugs.”

Language plays a big role in shaping our everyday realities. As we move farther away from the drug war hysteria that drove our country into the catastrophe of mass incarceration, now is as good a time as ever to question everything we take for granted about drugs and people who use them.

By Jag Davies, publications manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.