Why We Need to Destroy the Concept of What a Drug User Looks Like
Images of aged, dirty, and scabbed faces don’t help anyone. But neither does our obsession with attractive, white victims of overdose death.
Lead image via Flickr user Alex Bellink
Sunken-in eyes with bags underneath, a scab-covered face, disheveled hair, track marks, underweight, skin covered in dirt. This is what the general public has been taught to think someone who is addicted to drugs looks like. And even now in the midst of the biggest drug safety crisis in our history, largely caused by overprescribing of opioids by doctors and the proliferation of bootleg fentanyl, we have yet to fully depart from this.
Though the source of this stereotype is elusive and certainly not singular, the Faces of Meth campaign, which began in a county in Oregon in 2004, is one piece that majorly pushed this narrative forward. In the years following that first campaign showing before and after mugshots of people identified as meth users—often moderately healthy people in the before portion, then shifting to them some time after using meth looking aged, dirty, and covered in scabs—became well-known in the US and Canada through media attention.
While these photos illustrate the reality of the effects of using meth for some people, this was also simply a perfect propaganda tool for the war on drugs. Living in New York State, I remember being shown the campaign in one of my high school classes. Most of my peers laughed at it or were simply grossed out. Seeing those reactions confirmed to me that the intention of this campaign is mainly to use a scare technique to get citizens to do what you want them to (in this case, abstain from drug use) by playing to our obsession with physical appearance. But a secondary effect is to say that gawking at people struggling with addiction is completely OK and can even be funny.
I'm sure I don't need to tell you why addiction isn't funny. In the past few years, there have been thousands of opioid-related deaths in Canada, mainly from fentanyl. People continue to die daily, and if you have not been affected by this personally thus far, you should consider yourself lucky.
Yet, this fall I was reminded of war on drugs propaganda when I saw a CBC article titled "The new face of fentanyl addiction: Kati's story" about a young woman named Kati Mathers living on the streets in Vancouver. With the accompanying image showing before and after photos of the blonde, white, 22-year-old—one side of her smiling, wearing makeup, and looking generally healthy; the other of her marked-up face as she pulled down her bottom lip to expose her teeth, looking generally disheveled and unwell.
There it was again, in 2016, in plain sight: shaming the appearance of someone struggling with addiction to scare others into abstaining from using drugs—or, perhaps in the case of this media organization, to get clicks. But it's not just shaming of addiction. It's the shaming of people pushed to living on the streets, homeless, impoverished, perhaps struggling with mental health issues, and without proper medical care. In a way, this is shaming some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. And yet, this narrative is alive and well. But it is not always so simple as these before and after images or the picture that you conjure up in your mind when you think of what someone who is addicted to heroin looks like. Drug addiction can have varying effects on one's appearance and life. We do not always adhere to this simplistic, black-and-white physical appearance a la the Faces of Meth: Sometimes the physical signs are not there, and addiction is invisible.
I've seen people gain weight while addicted to drugs, and I've seen people get addicted to stimulants in order to lose weight; I knew someone who was fully functioning with opioid addiction, worked a desk job, and shot up when they got home—their employer never found out. I knew a blue collar worker who became addicted to prescription opioids, yet I did not see a difference in his appearance nor his socioeconomic status. I've known many who frequently used drugs, showered, wore clean, stylish clothing, held down full-time jobs or schooling—all without their appearances or situations in life changing drastically.
When we find out someone who doesn't fit that dirty, scabbed, disheveled description has used drugs or become addicted to them, it shatters our narrative. Some of the most prominent stories during opioid crisis coverage in Canada have been about young, white, attractive people who don't "look" like they do drugs to much of society.
Those are the kinds of stories that get increased attention. There was this young, white couple from North Vancouver who died of fentanyl overdoses in 2015—one of the first stories of fentanyl-related deaths that got high-level media attention. There was the story of 20-year-old A'lisa Ramsey of Calgary, who was addicted to fentanyl and in recovery, that I wrote—the increased numbers of comments and responses I got certainly showed that my interview subject broke some stereotypes people had about those suffering from drug addiction.
Recently, on February 12, a 14-year-old girl from a suburb in Ottawa died due to fentanyl. On March 6, less than a month after the teen's death got significant media attention, there was an announcement that $2.5 million dollars would be pledged to fight the opioid crisis in Ottawa. Yet, many communities struggling with the opioid crisis—including First Nations reserves—have yet to see significant dedicated government money to deal with this issue. It might be in part due to them not having a young, white, attractive person that challenges our society's concept of what a drug user looks like as the face of their issue. I'm positive there is more nuance to it than that, but we should be looking critically at what stories affect change and why.
We need to support each person who use drugs regardless of how they look; their socioeconomic status; their age; their race; if they live in the suburbs, in a small town, in a city. We need to address access to treatment, increase harm reduction initiatives, consider the causes of addiction (such as trauma and mental health issues), and break down the widespread discrimination against drug users rampant in our society. Let's start by destroying the concept of what someone who consumes drugs looks like because just as every human being is unique and different from one another, so is drug use and the impact it has on our lives.
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